A Freelance Economy Can Be Good for Workers: Let's Make It Better

Today, freelancers are the fastest-growing sector of the economy, but our current social contract, written for the 9-to-5 world, either ignores them or complicates their lives with more hurdles

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You can call them what you want -- freelancers, contractors, gig-ers -- but you can't ignore them. These contingent workers have grown in size and importance in the past decade, and they're not a generational anomaly or a stage for the post-collegiate generation. They're a new economic reality and a force in America.

In 2009, right after the Crash of 2008, Tina Brown, writing in The Daily Beast, declared our new economic normal as "The Gig Economy." What she spotted was not just that more and more Americas jump from project/job/gig to the next in an endless race, but rather they are reinventing a new business sensibility in the process. Freelancers are, in short, creating a new social compact. They do so, however, without the supports workers in previous eras took for granted. They are not covered by most employment laws. They don't have retirement or medical plans. And, for the most part, they have not joined together collectively to agitate for change. They are completely on their own, flying solo, and that has huge implications for the nation as well as them.

Today, freelancers are the fastest growing sector of the economy. And, one day very soon consultants and other micropreneurs who file a 1099 might overtake as a percentage of employed American those who file W-2s. Yet, our current social contract, written in the mid-1950s for the 9-to-5 world (organizational era), either ignores them or complicates their lives adding hurdles and obstacles.


Most of these new workers are struggling mightily just to survive and don't have time to think in terms of social contracts. Many hope their situation is only temporary, that soon a traditional 9-to-5 job awaits them. But, all the evidence points to a new reality that hits hard; it looks like we are not going back to the era of 9-to-5 and the organization man anytime soon. So, they are in desperate need for some guideposts or pearls of wisdom for how to go forward.

That is why there is such a large market for the many self-help books aimed at freelancers. They are desperate for understanding. They want a blueprint for this era. Freelancers can spend half their lives reading such books. And while in reading them, some wisdom might be gleamed, there are no magic bullets as most books ignore the real structural problems with the way our economy is organized and appear to be ignorant of political realities.

I tend to hate advice books for freelancers. They are way too simplistic. At their best, most enrich the author and are nothing less than simple top-ten lists of the obvious. And, at their worst, they reinforce the notion that freelancers, who have not yet found success, can blame only themselves for their failures. Collectively they reinforce the notion of the lone individual or economic actor. They see freelancers as mini-entreprenuers rather than workers. And, they reinforce a leading American myth that everyone can pull themselves up and be completely self-reliant. All you need is you, your laptop and a wifi connection -- and the right guru. These books are written in a vacuum. They ignore the simple fact that the vast majority of freelancers, while wanting to be entrepreneurs, are more like 19th century journeyman workers. These books confuse flexibility and dogged determinism (what we now call entrepreneurial spirit) with business ownership itself.

This is where The Freelancer's Bible is different. Sara Horowitz, the executive director of the Freelancers Union and a contributor to The Atlantic, has built an organization of almost 200,000 that serves the growing army of freelancers -- that numbers, according to Horowitz, about 1/3 of all working Americans. Her book is gleaned from her members' advice.

Presented by

Richard Greenwald, a professor of history and sociology, is dean of St. Joseph's College, N.Y. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. He is finishing a book on freelancers entitled The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works.

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