Bye bye, Busytown

Understanding independent work (part 0/3)


Amid all of the upheaval and change of 1968, one aspect of American life was being quietly and politely mythologized with the publication of Richard Scarry’s wildly successful ‘What Do People Do All Day’. Farmer Alfalfa, Baker Charlie, Zip the letter carrier, and the many other characters of the book each hold specialized jobs, together forming a prosperous and static industrial society.

The simplicity of Busytown is now foreign to us. We work in a global market, algorithms and automation underpin just about every aspect of what we do, and we bring to our occupations a more diverse set of needs and desires. The twin recessions of the 1990s and late 2000s amplified these changes, but the transition we’re living through does not appear to be temporary. There’s a shift happening regardless of our readiness for it.

What work we do, where we do it, who we do it for, how much of our time we spend on it, and why we work are all in flux. To understand where all of this is going, we have to look beyond the boundaries of traditional employment. From homesteading pioneers, to rags-to-riches industrialists, to the innovator in a garage, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps has long been a recurring theme in the American narrative. Today such self-reliance often happens despite our institutions, with great personal risk. What further potential might we unlock if our institutions were designed to enable change and renewal?

Self-employment as a share of total jobs has more than doubled since 1970. Today there is more than one self-employed person for every five who work for someone else. America also has a growing number of contingent workers and individuals who patch together an income from a variety of sources. In a previous time this would have been an apt description of low-skilled workers doing so out of necessity, but today it is also applicable to highly skilled individuals who explicitly choose that path. What can we learn from those self-employed by choice to reduce the precariousness of Americans who find themselves outside of traditional, full-time employment?

It’s easy to get mired in the semantics, so I’ve used the term ‘independent worker’ to describe the full spectrum from freelance to small business owner — essentially, people who enjoy a high degree of agency in their work life (and usually a high degree of risk as well). The work described here is mostly of the white collar variety, including things like consulting, research, accountancy and design services. These are the kinds of jobs that used to appear sheltered from the threats of automation and off-shoring, but increasingly seem uncertain as endangered as manual labor. My study also purposefully did not look at tech startups, as the dynamics of that sector (primarily the high growth rate and availability of risk capital) are much harder to find in other pursuits, and therefore make lessons learned in startup-land hard, if not impossible, to usefully transfer to other sectors.

Current data is mixed in the ways independent workers are counted, with results that don’t match up. Government data sources such as tax records and indices of company formations are too blunt to reflect the nuances of the current reality. Designed years ago, these surveys generally expect a binary of employed/independent and use job categories that do not always describe what we do easily. The person with a full time job who makes extra money driving for Lyft or renting out a spare room on AirBnB, the Etsy seller who works from their garage on the weekend, the retired angel investor who advises companies, the part-time employee who freelances on the side… these and others are examples of income generating activity that is messier than our inherited conception of how work happens and income is earned. They do not slot neatly into one statistical count or the other.

The unemployed are another murky statistical pool. Though we have a count of how many people are out of work, it’s not as easy to determine why. Unemployment due to incompetence is a very different thing than being let go because of mismatched skills, market pressures, or a shift in corporate focus. Talent also does not evaporate when retired, and yet these individuals are off the books when using a traditional, binary distinction between working and retired. The binaries of employed/unemployed and working/retired were useful for describing our economy in the past, but no longer.

Dig into this subject and you will find figures predicting a massively-independent workforce that makes up as much as 40% of economy in the near future. The bluster of these figures glosses over the complexity of the assessment described above, and the reader should cautiously evaluate the source(s) of what they read (this article is a good start on that). Full disclosure: I am co-owner of Makeshift Society, a coworking space that serves many (but not exclusively) independents so I too have a horse in the race, but it’s a tiny horse.

Though the gaps and mismatches of the data are frustrating, the fact that the statistics do not match our current needs is also a telling indicator. It means there’s something interesting afoot here, and it’s more of the future than it is of the past.

At the request of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, I spent three months conducting design research and getting to know independent workers (mostly freelancers but also some small business owners) working in Charlotte, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and ranging in age from 22 to 61. The sixteen interviews were purposefully chosen as a cross section of geographies, industries, years of experience, and levels of success. My study was qualitative, focused on synthesizing the experiences of independents into a framework that is useful for understanding and designing the future of work, independent or not.

This is a serialized essay, with the next installment posted on July 15th. In subsequent essays I’ll describe the characteristics of the new independent workforce, the changing macro context of work, and a frame for rethinking the relationship between them. Without a doubt we’ve said goodbye to Busytown, but it’s not exactly clear what’s next, so I’ve written these essays for myself and others (including our team at Makeshift Society) who are thinking and living through the multiple changes and challenges afoot. Although the focus of this essay is work, the discussion is also deeply tied to the future of the cities. As I wrote in a previous essay, the disposition of work in today’s cities is a central concern desperately in need of thought and experimentation. My goal was to understand how American society will evolve when these changes to how we work become more mainstream, and in turn what effect that will have on main street.

Continue to part 1/3, The Leading Edge

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