Friday, April 22, 2016

The Gig Economy? Yes and no.

There was an article in The Boston Globe the other day on the gig economy. I really wasn’t going to read it. What would it have to say that I didn’t already know up close and personal, after more than a decade of loadin’ my 16 tons on a freelance basis?

I was not surprised that there were no surprises, although I found the profession of the gigster that was first mentioned as an exemplar of free-lancery an odd one. I mean, can a professional stunt performer in Boston work on anything other than an occasional basis? Oh, sure, there are some films made here, but we’re not exactly Hooray for Hollywood territory.

I’m pretty sure there are more gig economy workers doing tech work, writing brochures, or driving for Uber than there are stunt men.

According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers, about 34 percent of the total workforce. A study from Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of US workers will fall into this category. (Source: Boston Globe)

For some of us, the growth of the gig economy has been a boon.

When I jumped corporate ship I was dee-lighted to be out of the commuting, managing, and politicking fray. And thrilled that I was able to immediately find work through my network, without having to do any self-promoting, me-branding or glad-handing. I’m fortunate in that my work has just pretty much shown up when I needed it.

And most of the folks I know who are freelancers are just as happy with it as not. Which is apparently in keeping with others:

According to the Freelancers Union, a 300,000-plus member nonprofit, nearly nine in 10 of its members surveyed said they would not return to a traditional job if given the chance.

Nonetheless, the freelancers lot is not necessarily a happy one. You’re on your own for benefits – health insurance, vacation, the company holiday party – and when you’re goldbrickin’, you’re goldbrickin’ on your own dime.

Most likely, unless you’re on a long term contract, your income is not going to be even from one month to the next. And you’re subject to the bureaucratic accounts payable whims of your clients. On that front, I’ve been spectacularly fortunate. Several of my clients pay net 15. Another’s somewhere between 45 and 60, which is predictable enough.

I did have one client that announced with great flourish that they were going onto a new payment system “for the convenience of our vendors.” Now, how a payment system that went from paying in 30 days to paying in 70-90 days can be positioned as for the payee’s convenience rather than that of the payer is beyond me.

But to me the real downside of the gig economy is that it’s more difficult to build relationships with folks if you’re not actually working with them, day in, day out. Some of my closest friendships were forged at work. I’m sure that’s true for many people. Yes, I have made a couple of reasonably strong friendships with my clients, but most of the relationships are just not the same.

Full-time work is where I also built the network that has always been the source of my freelance projects. I didn’t build this network consciously. The folks I’ve found my work through were the people I liked; some of them are true friends-for-life.

Plus, full-time work is where I developed the skills that enabled me to make a living as a free-lancer. I’m not talking about being able to write. That I could do before I entered the workforce. But the ability to write about technology, to develop messaging, to understand markets, to “get” the B2B enterprise world, etc. That’s all stuff that I learned on the job. And that’s where I’ve made my living once I decided to jump out of corporate and into gig world.

I might have been able to cobble together a living as a writer without knowing anything about technology – but it wouldn’t have been in technology companies. So would not, quite frankly, have been as rewarding monetarily as scrambling about looking for any-old-writing project would have been.

And I wouldn’t have had that wonderful network of mine. I’d have to have built “my brand”, be perpetually on the lookout for opportunities, and other things I didn’t have to do, thanks to all those years in the full-time world.

I feel bad for “the kids” who won’t have the chance to ever experience a full-time job. Who won’t be able to make those friends, develop those skills, and, frankly, drive your self nuts by getting emotionally invested and all swept up in the meshugas of the workplace.

I do have supreme confidence that they’ll figure something out. But good luck to them. I think they’re going to need it.

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