Journalist and editor extraordinaire Tina Brown wrote today, on The Daily Beast, that “No one I know has a job anymore. They’ve got Gigs.” In her rather negative post, she correctly notices the plethora of laid-off workers that are now trying to pay their bills by doing freelance project work. Tina seems to tie this condition to the battered state of the economy. While she’s right in doing so (and I like her term “The Gig Economy”), Tina (and many others) misses the bigger point.
The growing number of freelance workers represents a long-term structural shift in the economy, not just an inevitable immediate outcome of a global recession.
This new work model, which I call Work 2.0, is rapidly becoming the new reality. Yes, the economic downturn has accelerated the trend toward knowledge workers being employed on-demand to complete discrete projects, but the trend was already in place and is not likely to reverse itself. One of the lasting legacies of this Great Recession will be the transition to freelance, rather than regular, employment by many knowledge workers.
Venkatesh Rao illuminates a clear distinction between the old and new models of work on his blog. He uses the term “Organization Man” to describe the worker that is employed with the same company for many years, climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. He calls the freelancers “Cloudworkers” — human resources that can be called upon when needed to complete a specific task, much like one would consume a Web service hosted remotely. Like me, Venkat believes that cloudworking is rapidly displacing the organization-centric way of working, and that this is not just a temporary result of tough economic times.
What force is driving this transition to Work 2.0? The great disrupter called the Internet. As numerous authors (including Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink) have noted, it is now easy and economical to divide work into digital bits and push it — and the information and knowledge needed to complete the task — to others outside of the company and/or geographic region for completion. Increasingly, corporate employees exist to synthesize the various work pieces into a complete product as they are completed and returned to the company.
There’s one other point that Tina Brown did not make explicitly, but must be noted.
The success of the Work 2.0 model ultimately depends not only on the infrastructure that enables it (the Internet), but also on healthy, collaborative relationships between the players in the game.
Making an acceptable living as a freelancer requires developing and maintaining an expansive professional network. Without a strong and active network, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a freelancer to piece together enough work opportunities and income to pay the bills. Tina noted (twice) the frantic number of things her freelancer friends were working on, but she didn’t talk about how they were able to garner so many opportunities. Tina is a well-connected individual and, undoubtedly, so are many of her friends. That high degree of connection will be required of more and more of us as we transition to Work 2.0.
As a way of summarizing, I’ll reprint another statement from Tina’s post.
“To people I know in the bottom income brackets, living paycheck to paycheck, the Gig Economy has been old news for years. What’s new is the way it’s hit the demographic that used to assume that a college degree from an elite school was the passport to job security.”
That “hit” is not temporary; it’s a long-term shift in the foundation of work. Better get networking…