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Are We All Becoming Freelancers? How Economic Shifts Will Likely Change Your Job

More than 25 percent of all working Americans are, whether they want to be or not, temporary laborers, and that number will surely rise in the coming years.
 
 
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We are living at the dawn of the freelance world, as more and more people find themselves working as consultants, contract workers or freelancers. This change in the way we work is as profound as the shift that occurred during the industrial revolution.

More than 25 percent of all working Americans are, whether they want to be or not, temporary laborers, and that number will surely rise in the coming years. (According to the Freelancers Union, which represents almost 100,000 contract workers in the New York City metro region, freelancers already comprise 30 percent of America’s workforce.) Job security and 9-to-5 jobs are becoming a relic of the past. This year’s college graduates enter a fragile economy offering more risk than guarantees, and far fewer jobs than applicants.

As corporations have prospered and gained labor flexibility, most workers have watched their futures decline. Neoliberalism has unlocked capital, freeing it from national borders; workers are increasingly a temporary, disposable expense. Firms can now hire on a project basis (anywhere), and no longer need to invest in large facilities or workforces.

Many readers of this magazine have tried to understand the complacency of today’s workers, particularly younger ones, who find themselves temping. Some of that complacency has to do with the growing freelance economy.

The larger social impact of freelancing has been well documented, but what is missing is an understanding of those businesses that encourage or are enriched by the new “gig” economy. We know little about the businesses that prop up freelancers, simultaneously nurturing and feeding off them. In fact, we tend not to think of these businesses collectively as an industry. But we should. From consultants to self-help book authors to the rise of “co-workplaces,” which provide freelancers with social interaction, an industry has developed that serves as both freelance cheerleader and parasite. It has defined the new gig culture, and it is time that we begin to understand this industry’s place in our economy.

On Amazon.com, thousands of books cater to the freelancer. Most are memoirs of success, more brands than books. And many are little more than glorified Powerpoint presentations. Daniel Pink’s 2001 book Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself , part memoir, part DIY manifesto, is the model. He discusses how he wound up a freelancer and how he overcame his nervousness and embraced freelancing, which led to his great success. The book drives readers to Pink’s website, which in turn sends people to his seminars and other books.

Alan Weiss’s Getting Started in Consulting is designed to introduce his audience to basic business concepts. Again, the goal is to establish Weiss as a brand, a go-to consultant and public speaker. Simple books like The Wealthy Freelancer offer a “top 12” list of what to do, much like the Rich Dad, Poor Dad personal investing book franchise. Cutesy books like Undress for Success feature bunny slippers on the cover. I could go on and on.

These books and their authors do several things. As cheerleaders for freelancing, they celebrate the freedom, creativity and inevitable success and wealth to be found in this new way to work, which is part profession and part lifestyle. What they do not do is explore the realistic possibilities of failure and the fact that most freelancers struggle. Popular freelance books suggest success is the norm: If you are not a successful freelancer, you are not normal. In other words, the old free-market arguments about social mobility from the original Gilded Age are being applied to the new workplace: If you are not successful, it is your fault.

 
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