The Freelance Revolution

The notion that work is changing and that free agent knowledge workers will dominate the new economy was something I discussed in my Master’s thesis, published in 1998.  I’ve been talking about free agents as the future of work on this blog almost since I started it. I wrote that free agents are the future of work in 2004 when I noticed that it was getting much easier to be a free agent. In my first year as a freelancer, I learned business lesson #1 : there IS NO BUSINESS until you have a customer.

After three years, I created a list of what being a free agent meant to me:

10. Doing my own tech support

9. Only working seven days a week

8. Paying cash & avoiding monthly payments

7. Time for exercise and reading

6. Lots of short breaks, but no long holidays

5. Getting asked to volunteer more

4. Seeing more of my banker

3. Seeing more of my family

2. Looking forward to Mondays

1. Creating my own opportunities

I likened free agentry to a natural enterprise and noted that salaried work is a mug’s game:

Corporations have had continuous profits while workers have seen none of it. Trickle down economics doesn’t work. One of the few options for individual workers is to establish a new work contract. However, unions are losing influence and collective bargaining hasn’t done much for workers’ wages.

It’s getting easier for individuals to connect with social applications like Facebook and we are also seeing tools like Linked-In for business. The tools for individual workers to connect and collaborate are now available, though we don’t have the culture or mindset to fully embrace them yet.

My brush with full-time employment inspired me to write: you do not own me:

I have often referred to salaried employment as indentured servitude, and practices such as non-compete clauses are examples of this culture. Perhaps with more worker mobility, a growing body of free-agents and less dependence on corporations for work, we may see this culture changing. Let’s hope that the lawyers hear about this soon.

My recommendation two years ago was – freelancers unite:

If contract work seems like the only option, then start networking with co-workers and competitors. Band together as a guild or association and help each other out. Think of it as a freelancers union and look into group health care, joint marketing and shared administration. You can’t do this working 40 hours a week for The Man. The deck is stacked with laws supporting either employers and employees but the future of knowledge work is free-agency. The powers that be, corporations and unions, won’t change to help out freelancers, we have to help ourselves.

Being a free agent has been like riding the roller coaster, but after this decade it seems that it is becoming the norm. One of my inspirations when I went on my own was Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation. Via @DanielPink on Twitter, I just came across this article in The Atlantic – The Freelance Surge is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time:

This transition is nothing less than a revolution. 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.

Welcome to the revolution, folks. Let’s keep working together.

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