Update, April 2018: The Freelancer’s Union currently puts the number of freelancers in the U.S. at 57 million. Up by more than 10 million since this post was originally published in 2011.
The Atlantic has been running a series over the past several weeks on the surge of independent, freelance workers in our current economy. I think the rapid emergence of a large freelance economy is a trend that has important implications for any organization in the business of lifelong learning. Here’s what writer Sara Horowitz says about the freelance trend in the first installment of the series:
We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.
As Horowitz argues in other parts of the series, we don’t currently have sufficient social/economic infrastructure in place for supporting these people. Certainly there is a significant role for trade and professional associations in helping to address that issue, both in providing services like group insurance and in advocating for appropriate economic security measures for workers in the fields they represent. Continuing education and professional development will also be an important issue to address.
Whatever its upsides, the post-cubicle, freelance economy comes with less certainty and less security than the corporate economy of the last century. The seismic shift in global markets along with breathtaking advances in technology just over the past decade have made late 20th century terms like “information economy” or “knowledge economy” seem static and outdated. We now live and work in what must be fundamentally understood as a learning economy. Only individuals and organizations that that continuously and effectively learn will thrive.
For individuals operating in the freelance world, the need for learning now goes well beyond the domain knowledge that would have guaranteed employment in the past decade. These people are having to handle issues – from sales and marketing to retirement planning to, yes, professional development – that previously would have been handled by others.They need support in learning how to do this effectively.
These people also have to be promoted to in different ways, through different channels than might have traditionally been the case. Given that the tie between their time and their income is much clearer than it has probably ever been before, they may be less inclined to take time out for formal educational experiences. To the extent that they do, they must see indisputable value in doing so.
For anyone in the business of lifelong learning, the learning economy and the post-cubicle workforce represent a tremendous opportunity. They also represent a tremendous challenge that will require many organizations to re-think their strategy to a significant degree.
Here are links to the three parts of The Atlantic series that have been published so far. I welcome your thoughts.
- The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time
- A Jobs Plan for the Post-Cubicle Economy
- Welcome to Middle-Class Poverty— Does Anybody Know the Way Out?
Update, January 2014: Good to see ASAE tuning into the freelance economy.