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.

While this book is realistic about the challenges freelancers face, Horowitz doesn't see pure darkness in the future. As freelancers grow, and companies continue to outsource, there are more opportunities for them to make a living and influence the larger economy. But at its heart, her argument for a just future for freelancers rests on a collective vision, the one advanced by the Freelancer's Union. At its heart, this is a movement book more than a business, self-help book.

Horowitz is not the typical self-help business author. In her Dumbo office has a framed photo of Sidney Hillman centrally placed so as he watches over her every move. Hillman was the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. One-hundred years ago, he created a new style of social unionism that was rooted in community and political activism. He founded the CIO in the 1930s, and pushed it to become a political dynamo that helped re-elect FDR in 1936. Hillman saw unionism as a political force to push the government to improve the conditions for all workers. Hillman embodied 20th century liberalism, an attempt to humanize the harsh economic realities of modern capitalism. Horowitz is, in a modest way, a modern-day Hillman. Instead of industrial, immigrant garment workers, her movement is built on freelancers. In some ways her job is far harder than Hillman's. His workers had a socialist tradition to draw on. They saw themselves as exploited and held collectivism as a strategy. Horowitz's freelancers exist in an atomized culture that despises collectivism. They have internalized the American success narrative to the point that they do not see the structural barriers to their success. In short, most are not conscious of their own exploitation.

Yet, this powerful vision of united political action is almost missing from The Freelancers Bible. While her book briefly discusses the economic and political structures that prevent freelancers from advancing, the political analysis takes a backseat to useful advice and small doses of old-fashioned consciousness-raising. She pulls the punch. There are practical sections that deal with "getting started," "getting work," "growing your business," managing your business," and "your business and your community." Each contains important and useful advice and simple how-tos, thankfully without falling into the trap of creating a simplistic blue print. She lays out the routes others have found to stability (which she defines as the new success) so they may serve as models. In short, she opens up the community, and crowd-sources the wisdom. But she stops short of providing a full-blown political argument for building a safety net for freelancers that rivals the support for full-time employees.

Where she comes closest is in the most forceful section, and the one that I think needs to be carefully read, entitled "the future us now ... and it's us." Horowitz envisions a world of work where "management won't be top-down so much as grassroots-up;" technology continues to decentralize/destabilize work; connectivity is power; and competition gives way to cooperation. But, she doesn't explain how we get there. Or how we got here. In short, the world she describes, which in many ways is already here, is one that freelancers now inhabit. It is a world of the outsourced and at risk. Yes, freelancers are nimble, technologically sophisticated and connected, they have formed hives or communities, but their have not yet found their political and collective voice.

As I read the last pages, I can hear her attempt at rewriting the re-frame from that old labor song, "There is Power in a Union" (as most recently sung by Billy Bragg): "Power in the hands of a freelancers/ But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand / There is power in a Union." She is asking freelancers to stand together for their sake and ours. I hope they hear that faint refrain clearly.