Monday, June 28, 2010

Working on a (Temp) Dream

Welcome to the freelance economy, where workers are atomized, badly compensated and strangely optimistic.

By Richard Greenwald

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.

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