Meredith Goddard, Founder & Director at Five Years In, explores freelance work and considers ways in which traditional work is no longer meeting human needs.
There are two contract based economies - the skilled type, freelance work, and the unskilled type, gigs. Yes, they are both fraught with unpredictable income and a la carte paychecks in a world where benefits continue to be bundled with full time employment, but the monetary and personal gains from each form of contract-based work are miles apart. Uber and Lyft drivers make a median hourly profit of $8.55 per hour, which amounts to less than minimum wage in over half the states in America. The gig economy platform Fiverr is based on the premise that you can get a job done for five dollars. You’re not likely to make more than minimum wage completing jobs for TaskRabbit or delivering food for Postmates, but many people continue to be drawn to these gigs in order to conveniently supplement their income. The reality is that many of these low-skilled gigs are prone to automation in the not too distant future and provide very few personal gains for workers beyond a little extra cash.
The gig economy is not the future of work. The future of work, however, will center around and resemble today’s freelance economy because freelancing meets human needs. This may seem surprising as freelance workers are often cast as unduly benefiting corporations or clients. After all, this form of labor is on-demand and workers are as disposable as they are hirable and they cost employers far less than traditional employees. The future of work will be driven by human factors that go beyond wages/benefits packages or the coming changes associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
It’s easy to get caught up in the exciting potential of the future of work - humans working alongside robots, automation, quantum computing, biotechnology, energy revolutions, etc. The exponential scaling and application of technology to work mean that humans will increasingly need to specialize in what humans do best, what Cognizant calls the Three Cs - “coaching, caring, and connecting.” If the future workplace will be ever more dependent on uniquely human skills, then it’s time to think about creating work to meet uniquely human needs.
The future of work will be freelance because freelance work fixes what’s broken with 9-5 jobs. These are just a few examples of the ways in which traditional work isn’t meeting human needs.
- 70% of workers are disengaged according to a 2017 Gallup “State of the Workplace” Report, a shockingly high level of disengagement that has remained at this level since 2011. Of the 30% of workers who report being engaged at work, 1 in 5 workers are at are at high risk for burnout. This means that about a quarter of workers are healthily engaged with their jobs.
Labor force participation in the United States is at levels not seen since the late 1970s, a time when women’s labor force participation rates were far lower than they are today. Economists often attribute these low levels of participation to the problem of discouraged workers - workers who get so fed up with applying and not getting jobs that they drop out of the labor force altogether. Others attribute this statistic to demographic shifts, namely that a sizeable portion of the labor force is at or near retirement age. There is also some speculation that these low levels of participation in the formal economy might indicate an increasingly reliance on informal, contract-based work. Whatever the reason, these abysmal participation numbers signal that something is wrong in the workplace today.
Work doesn’t work for women as shown by the enduring gender pay gap largely due to the motherhood penalty women face in their careers when they decide to have children. Women who have children have to make difficult choices about how to spend their time and earnings and husband’s careers are often prioritized. In fact, men who have children tend to experience a fatherhood bonus.
These huge, human problems plaguing the modern workplace say nothing of fluorescent lighting, commutes, office politics, cubicles, meetings for the sake of meetings, and other daily offenses that workers routinely endure. Maybe that’s why Upwork’s latest report (a treasure trove of information for those interested in the subject) “Freelancing in America Survey 2017,” reveals a statistic that is shocking, but not surprising, which is that 50% of freelancers say, “there is no amount of money (offered in a salary package) where I would definitely take a traditional job.” That’s because, despite the anxiety associated with unpredictable income, freelance work makes life better for workers. According to a 2016 study by McKinsey, freelancers report feeling more empowered, independent, and recognized for their work. Freelancers also find themselves with more opportunities for professional growth and generally report a higher degree of satisfaction with their overall work life. It’s no wonder, then, that younger generations are leading the movement to the freelance workforce, a demographic change that will reshape the workplace for decades to come.
Many freelancers will never return to the confines of the 9-5 work day because of the disengaging nature of the traditional workplace and the ways in which the traditional workplace is disconnected from the conditions needed to achieve motivation and flow. Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, lays out three human needs to optimize productivity and excel at work, namely: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These needs form the bedrock of freelance work, but are largely ignored by traditional managers.
Freelancers relish their autonomy and can work when they are most productive and in ways that compliment their complex lives and responsibilities (see the motherhood penalty above). It’s past time for the traditional workplace to take a cue from the research behind motivation and the studies around human happiness to start implementing results-oriented versus time-on-task, “look busy” work days.
Freelancers also have the rare ability to offer the services that they are best at and most passionate about - services that demonstrate their mastery of certain skills. Traditional employees are often pulled away from their best work to take part in listless meetings, last minute projects, or tasks that don’t allow them to develop their strengths. When I teach workshops about the future of work and getting started in the freelance economy I show them Upwork’s latest skills index, in this case a 4th Quarter Index from 2017, of the 20 most in-demand (and, often, highest paying) freelance skills. What’s interesting is that none of these skills are college majors or minors. Very few people have even taken a course in one of these skills because very few of these courses are part of the formal education system, which isn’t keeping pace with the needs of an economy driven by exponential change. Freelancers who can perform one of these top 20 skills had to go out of their way to master the skill on their own, either through mentorship and practice or scrappiness and practice. Regardless, the most remunerative and in-demand skills require mastery, a prerequisite for motivated, optimized, and productive work.
For freelancers to attract clients and excel, they not only have to clearly articulate their own value proposition, they also have to have a compelling mission statement. Daniel Pink calls this purpose, but this is also Ikigai, or “reason for being.” Freelancers have the opportunity to define their goals and desired impact on the world in ways that traditional workers cannot. The traditional workplace requires workers to buy into company goals and slogans, which are often tied to quarterly earnings or products/services not wholly owned by any one employee. Most traditional employees are told their purpose and cannot see their impact beyond piecemeal completion of projects or to-do lists. Recent research on having a sense of purpose hints at its broad impact on health, happiness and general well-being. Freelancers have the good fortune to define their own purpose and state their desired impact on the world.
The future of work will resemble and be comprised of freelance jobs because the form and function of freelance work is fundamentally human. The industrial mindset and model of the 9-5 workday will be phased out by technological changes that automate routine processes, data mining, and predictable tasks. After all, robots and machines will be able to perform these tasks far better than humans. In the future, the only work left for people will be uniquely human (the Three Cs), and the best way to be a human at work is in the freelance economy.
By Meredith Goddard, Founder & Director at Five Years In
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