The Leading Edge

Independents are an early warning system for the economy (part 1/3)


If you haven’t read the intro to this serialized essay, you might want to start with part zero: By Bye, Busytown.

N.b. Where comments have come directly from an interview I’ve used initials instead of full names.

Filled with depictions of ideal worlds, children’s books help us see the difference between the way we tell ourselves society should work, and the way that it actually works. One can be forgiven for assuming that Richard Scarry’s Busytown is without independent workers, because it’s also devoid of angst. Independents have been depicted in popular media as rebellious non-conformists who are escaping the confines of corporate employment. This was the dream of The Free Agent Nation, where high skilled experts are freed from the daily grind to capture profit and perks between their global escapades.

The reality is less seditious and far more interesting. When we look at the motivations behind the decisions of independents, we find that the valence of their choices are seldom negative. Few of them are rejecting the corporate structure defiantly; rather, most are aligning their work with a personalized ideal lifestyle or some approximation thereof, and often taking personal risks to do so. In other words, understanding the new workforce helps us see the failings of the employer-dominated status quo of contemporary America—failings that a growing number of people are choosing to avoid by going independent.

Independent work is not as simple (or as quantitative) as balancing a job against everything else one does. The benefits and risks are more readily found in the qualities of one’s income generating activity and the opportunities or constraints that are introduced. The phrase “work/life balance” implies a calculation of “work or…”, but for independent workers the more likely question is “work and…” For AK, an interior designer in New York City, it was work and fairness, something she didn’t find much of in her field. “Being on my own allows me to be outside of the industry’s bad habits,” she observed. This tells us that while independent work is by definition a personal decision, the choice is not just about self-satisfaction.

In an attempt to stay clear of New Economy wonkery in this study, I set out to get to know the lives of independents around the country. Their experiences were my lens into the near future. Anticipating ways that life will change for independents is essential if you want to develop policies, programs, or products that are relevant to the future of independent work, but it also gives us a tool for imagining the future of employers and employees at large. Independents are not an isolated branch of the workforce, they are its leading edge.

The leading edge value agency

In the traditional conception of the American Dream, success in one’s career leads to increased wealth and security, and eventually the freedom to enjoy a retirement doing “whatever I want.” Today a growing number of people question this formula. In the words of DC, age 22, “time is the most valuable currency, hands down. You can make up income but you can never get time back.” For people like DC, freedom is success, not the other way around.

The freedom to weave work into one’s ideal lifestyle is of central importance to the independent workforce. Do not mistake “ideal lifestyle” here with self-centered acts, such as freewheeling travel (which is an oft-repeated trope in the literature). Certainly some do seek independent work because it gives them the flexibility to wander, but there are many others who do it because they need the ability pay the bills and meet other needs. This includes things such as being available to loved ones, taking time for recovery after a critical health event, or making-do after relocating to be with a significant other. The agency that comes with independence allows people to bend a brittle, industrial-era conception of work around their contemporary lives.

“I look for responsibilities, not job titles.”

Many independents “know themselves” and seek out work arrangements that fit their needs precisely because they believe this is what it takes for them to do their best work. As AO in Los Angeles puts it, “I look for responsibilities, not job titles.” The desire to avoid tasks that are uninteresting or dissatisfying is a common theme, but not all of the desires are so lofty. Many of the reasons independents cite for avoiding staff positions are small annoyances that together add up to a general ‘friction’ preventing them from focusing on the work they are so committed to emotionally and intellectually. The ability to control one’s own schedule, to work from home, or to avoid organizational politics may not be make-or-break factors in and of themselves, but together they add up to an overall sense of agency that creates the space for a lifestyle that is meaningful and motivating to them.

These freedoms are not without cost, however. JM, a management consultant in Charlotte, cites the ability to “work on something [satisfying] for the rest of [my] life” as the reason that drew him to independent work, but at 61 years old he is concerned about financing “some facsimile of retirement” and finds himself without the broader resources of an employer to assist in that. LF sums up the polar options, “when I’m on staff there’s this feeling of being trapped but when I’m freelance it’s this obligation to always hustle.”

The leading edge value their work

After 18 years of successful freelance work and nearly the same number of years before that as a full-time employee, CM decided to wind down her freelance practice and take a staff position with one of her clients. Throughout her career CM followed her passion for thinking about and working on a specific set of issues. For her, the question was not “should I work for a company” but “what arrangement will let me focus on the topics that matter to me?” CM’s deep attachment to her research and the non-linear way that she chose to pursue it is emblematic of how careers in America are evolving. “I’ve never been a climber. All I wanted to do was good work. Just having the reputation for good work was important.”

In the past, the word “career” has implied a linear progression from job to job. If one had a successful career they could expect that their salary, duties, and title would ratchet upward as they advanced. For independents, progress is more fluid and is likely to be defined as much by personal criteria as it is by increased levels of comfort and security. Whereas a linear career can often be boiled down to the highest rank achieved, the value of a non-linear career emerges, like a portfolio, from the composition of the various roles and projects one has undertaken.

“I’ve never been a climber. All I wanted to do was good work.”

The nonlinear career also allows independents an easier transition when making time for training and education or pursuing a completely new kind of work. If one looked only at his frequent social media postings, AO would appear to be a man of leisure. On the contrary, he is a sought-after creative director who has done stints both inside companies and as a freelancer. Like CM, he is driven by a desire to do what he describes as “good work” but ultimately AO would prefer to have a full-time staff position if he could find the right one. Rather than settle for a job that may blossom into the position he dreams of, AO uses his successful freelance career to obtain a high quality of life while he searches for the perfect job. Over the years this has allowed him to steadily shift his work from advertising towards design. By working independently, AO has given himself the freedom to search for satisfaction.

The domination of the employer-employee model for income generating activity today introduces subtle difficulties for those, like LF, who are looking for something outside the status quo. “Titles are a unit of measurement, and though I’ve been doing escalating work as a freelancer my title is not changing, and in a way titles are legitimizing.” As non-linear careers become more common, moments of transition multiply — into and out of education, projects, jobs, etc. Supporting non-linear careers means easing these moments of transition (for both individuals and organizations) as well as expanding the culturally acceptable definitions of “a successful career” to include more diverse pathways, and a new set of socially-acceptable markers of progress.

The leading edge take calculated risks

Risk is a constant calculation for independents, who are likely to describe themselves as somewhere between “only slightly risk tolerant” and “calculated risk takers.” Because they lack the same safety nets that are available to employees working under someone else, independents are creative in the ways that they seek to mitigate the necessary risks of working on their own. They are resourceful in vetting potential clients through social networks, seek ad hoc communities of support, and make careful decisions about what projects they take on and how many they juggle at any one time.

Independents experience life between two worlds. As ‘early adopters’ of a new way of working they often receive the envy of their peers, yet they also suffer from not being able to take full advantage of a system built on the assumption of more traditional employment. For instance, although the Affordable Care Act has given individuals more freedom to work on their own, the variable income of an independent and lack of an employer can make it difficult for them to secure a mortgage, or even a lease in competitive markets. Freelancers Union is starting to address some of these discrepancies, but ultimately the employment bias runs deep within our society and will require coordinated effort to change. A common lament among independents is the difficulty of convincing one’s parents that being without an employer is not the same as being unemployed. Even small talk will have to change.

Even LinkedIn expects an employer, as seen here in a screenshot taken earlier this year.

In theory, independents are able to charge higher rates for their work to offset these additional costs and risks, but that is often not the case. This elevated level of risk makes independent work more daunting for younger individuals but simultaneously highlights an opportunity for older workers who are more likely to have amassed some financial security, strong networks, and experience. Looking forward, one might expect an increased number of encore careers to be independent.

“If you’re on your own, you are the senior attorney, even if you don’t have the experience.”

The risks that independents take on are also professional, which is especially present in the minds of individuals with less experience, including those fresh from school. As described by an early-career lawyer who prefers to remain anonymous:

All of the risk is on you. When you don’t have experience this can be frightening… If you work in a firm, the senior attorneys make the critical decisions, so a young lawyer has the “safe harbor” of “I was just following orders.” But if you’re on your own, you are the senior attorney, even if you don’t have the experience.

Of course, risk is perceived differently based on geography and perspective. AM works in public relations in Detroit and in her comments you can sense the fragility of the local economy. “You don’t have any more or less security on your own,” she says, “but you do have more control over how you deal with your security.” This intense self-reliance is a deeply American response, but it’s also a sign of making-do that poses important questions.

Why does such a prosperous, capable society have to accept making-do? Can we build companies that leverage collective effort while allowing their employees to retain a high degree of agency? Can we find ways to maintain a high level of productivity, without sacrificing our personal lives, including the ability to spend time with and care for loved ones? Can this happen without transferring an unreasonable amount of risk to the individuals who make up the leading edge?

Where does this go?

In the past, when faced with problems at scale, humanity has organized itself at scale. Big problems were tackled by big organizations. If you wanted to administer a widespread community of millions of people, you needed a large state. If you wanted to produce millions of products, you needed a large company. But with scale came negative effects too. Lots of big organizations are unhealthy, and some 70% of American workers report that they are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” From Holocracy to hives to coworking, people are now experimenting with the building blocks of how work is organized and these experiments are being led by those who, like the leading edge, value agency, are passionate about the content of their work, and are comfortable taking informed risks.

On July 22nd I’ll post the next essay which explores the new work: operating at scale without organizing at scale. Achieving this means finding ways to accept the human aspirations of the leading edge and developing employment and other income-generating opportunities that take into account their needs. The leading edge are an important demographic because they elect to navigate their own course through a tumultuous economy, and in doing so help us imagine what this new economy might look like in human terms.

Continue to part 2/3, Market Realities & Networked Dreams


Researched and written with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. All opinions are my own.