The modern workforce is freelance–cities should get ready…rural communities are.

Mary Doyle
Jun 28, 2018 · 4 min read

Fast Company writer, Eillie Anzilotti makes a case for priority setting in this new workforce age:

By 2027, half the U.S. population will be freelance. If cities focus on that, attracting independent workers and startups suddenly seems a lot more important than, say, courting Amazon.

She’s right; but it’s kind of odd hearing that tune being sung by cities. More than 80% of all freelancers are already there!

According to Upwork, rural freelancers account for 18% of the total freelance population— but that’s just the beginning of the story if we have anything to say about it. We want freelance and small town to be paired like peanut butter and jelly. We’re building a future that leverages our strengths in this new era of technology and change; and we aren’t courting Amazon…we’re courting freelancers.

Rural freelancers , although represented by every age group, are on average about 10 years older than urban freelancers. In urban centres we know that millennials make up 50% of the freelance community. Many of them left rural towns in search of education and employment opportunities in the city. This group (now older) is looking to settle down and raise a family. Small towns offer home ownership, community and leadership roles. Big fish in a small pond. For small towns, freelancers bring with them their own work and income (new money) and a new worldview that builds relevance and perspective into our rural communities. With every returning or new millennial family we are strengthening our communities economically and socially while diversifying our workforce.

In the Fast Company article Stephane Kasriel comments,

“We ask our network of freelancers what some of the important factors are when they are deciding where to live,” says Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel. “And the number one is a strong network of business professionals, like lawyers and accountants, that can help them run their own business–freelancers are like startups themselves.” And following close behind, Kasriel says, is a local community of other similar professionals. “The more of a critical mass of freelancers you can get in a place, the more effective they all become,” he adds.

In rural communities a freelance ecosystem extends beyond freelancers themselves. The critical mass that Stephane references in cities is a diversified support system of connected community members in rural. WIIFM is still everyone’s favourite radio station. What’s In It For Me has to be addressed and answered. The whole community has to understand “why” it’s important to grow and support this group of independent professionals and what opportunities exist for them. It’s an extra step that cities don’t have to take, but one that will diversify and sustain the ecosystem. Our strength is in our interconnectedness. (Unfortunately, when there is poor leadership or no leadership at all, it’s our weakness as well.)

The small communities with progressive leaders recognize that getting out of the way is sometimes the best way forward. Our small size allows us the opportunity to act quickly, to pivot and make changes and adjustments without bloated process that is an unavoidable part of urban decision-making. We have to be careful not to confuse unnecessary process with progress. It’s actually our strategic advantage. Rural communities CAN act quickly, CAN leverage innovation early, CAN iterate and change direction quickly. In other words, rural CAN be agile. We have to lift the veil that’s been filtering our view and realize that our true advantage is being small.

There is no room for complacency. We are keenly aware of our current reality and projected future. By 2050 rural populations are anticipated to make up only 10% of the entire North American population.

Statistics tell us that the continued drain into the city is inevitable but history and human nature tell us that there is something more fundamental that’s not being taken into account — the relevance that comes from being part of something small and unique, the peace that comes from quiet, the joy that comes from creativity, the confidence that comes from autonomy and the comfort that comes from belonging.

Even today, we are generally told that gigantic organizations are inescapably necessary; but when we look closely we can notice that as soon as great size has been created there is often a strenuous attempt to attain smallness within bigness. E. F. Schumacher

pwc (Future of the Workforce) tells us that anxiety about the future can kill confidence and our willingness to innovate; but, it also reminds us that the future isn’t static — it’s dynamic and change is already happening all around us. It really is a choice. We can fear the future or have faith in it. Rural communities are choosing the latter. Embracing the growing freelance workforce and supporting its development is a no brainer (and a bonus for small towns if cities have their eyes on the wrong prize.)

Rural on Purpose is a social enterprise committed to helping rural communities everywhere navigate this new era of work and pilot uniquely rural solutions to high impact workforce trends. Our rural coworking pilot has helped communities build viable coworking ecosystems that support freelancers while at the same time strengthen local businesses — all in 10 short weeks. The solution is rooted in embracing our small community advantage. The economic development manager from High River, Jodi Dawson, said it best when she spoke at our pilot community meeting. She said “cities have to manufacture spaces and communities for freelancers. In our small towns we just have to throw open our doors.”

You can find our latest pilot results here.

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