The Olympic Broad Jumper & the Gig Economy
The New Era of Career Collaging
He tells us he was a former Olympic Broad Jumper from Senegal. Our Lyft driver is infectiously energetic, handsome, extremely confident and motivated. At home in L.A. he works as a kids’ sports coach while running 2 startup businesses and in his “spare time” drives for Lyft, often coming up to San Francisco from LA to reap the benefits of the higher rates here.
He’s also a face of a new economic reality. In the fifteen-minute drive from our client’s Board meeting downtown to our offices in the Fillmore, we learn his story, vision and hopes for the future. In L.A. he’s growing his two small but burgeoning businesses, one in fashion and the other in food. He intends to use these profits to return to Senegal and set up a fleet of used buses to run a “Senegalese Greyhound bus system”. In turn, he’ll use those profits to set up a foundation in his mother’s name to support street kids and orphans.
At one point, he pulls over to show us his Business Model… a large white paper with pictures, words and diagrams that visually tell the story of his now and future Empire and how it will all interconnect — his two favorite TV shows are Empire and Shark Tank.
This young man has smarts, charisma, and hustle. We ask him what he needs to take his next step in Empire building and he says business guidance and funding, he’ll handle the rest (there are reasons he and others like him are sometimes called independent).
He’s one face of the new Gig economy and there are millions more…Intuit reports that 34% of America’s workforce today is classified “independent”, within four years that number will be 40% and the average on-demand worker today relies on three different income streams.
Why, and how is this reality emerging? All of the politicians today promise more jobs but is that a promise they can keep? Do we even want them to deliver on that promise if they haven’t yet understood how work is shifting? Politicians don’t generate jobs — but maybe they could be helpful in setting up more favorable conditions (tax structures, benefits, funding incentives, loans, etc.) for individual entrepreneurship, ‘independents’ and new start-ups — net new job growth really comes from new, small businesses.
Is this “Gig economy” a bad thing or a good one?
In the 1988 movie sound track to Good Morning Viet Nam, the Silhouettes sang “Get a Job”. It was the one message we all heard loud and clear when my generation was slouching toward adulthood …get a job, keep your nose clean, build a solid career with a good company and retire in thirty years, then you can do what you really want to do.
That doesn’t work today (and perhaps it never really worked that well in the past either). The entire game has changed since we rounded the millennium corner. The social contract of trust and loyalty between companies and workers that used to exist in this country is broken. The ties have been cut by the sharp knives of outsourcing, downsizing, reengineering, automation replacements and the constant waves of economic lay-offs and job eliminations designed to show Wall Street a better looking P & L.
Mid-level jobs represented over 50% of all job losses in the recent Great Recession but only 2% of those have come back. They are just gone. For many, there is no full time, one-company job available, and for those that exist — many have shorter expiration dates than they used to. Job change is the new normal.
The Gig Economy is emerging in response to these conditions.
Like creative collage artists, the “Gig workers” are becoming experts at “destructive construction”
Instead of cutting apart photos, gluing and painting them to form a new image, they use their own careers and lives as the material for cutting, pasting and painting new ways of doing life. They are making “Collage Careers”.
A Collage Career is a combination of creative outlet, passion, financial necessity, market need, intentional exploration, and opportunistic mixing and matching.
People creating these usually hold some aspect of their career combinations constant, while changing and reorganizing others in their ladder of priorities. One of the consultants in our office, a well-educated millennial, did consulting work with us while developing his musical career, partnering with a friend on a food truck and developing real estate deals. Another consultant, also a millennial and a newly minted MBA, is working part time for us and part time for a sustainability consulting company, while developing her interests in writing, new media and graphic recording.
The Collage Careerist thrives on borderless creativity and experimentation. They recognize that their career and life is theirs to design. It’s neither a 9-to-5 traditional job nor is it the creation of an all consuming, single small business that captures their imagination. In an ever-changing economic landscape, they stay agile and creative, fluidly shaping new combinations of work and income, while growing the things that personally excite them.
Everyone has learned lessons from the Great Recession and one of the most important take-a-ways for many people has been to diversify. You don’t put all your career eggs in one basket, just as you wouldn’t put all of your retirement money into one investment. The message is: Develop a full range of possibilities.
Collage your interests, skills, and the changing market needs into a vibrant, growing, thriving, picture of a life worth living.
By the way, Collage Careerism is not just for millennials, even though they’re making a new art of it. We have a house in the country, 110 miles north of San Francisco, skewing much older than 20-30 somethings, and in this community too — workers with great practical skills and life experiences are collaging products, services and artistic expression into ways to pay their bills and live a life they want. A long time ago, someone who did carpentry, took electrical work, built fences, cut trees, and played in a local band was called a jack-of-all-trades. Today the label of “jack-of-all-trades” doesn’t really do justice to how these craftsman see their value and consciously collage their services. They embrace creating a flexible way of engaging life and increasing their ability to thrive, while others are still desperately looking for that one job that went away.
An Intuit report “Dispatches from the New Economy”, shows that overall, Gig workers rate themselves as happy with their lives. A few cynics write these findings off saying that the gig responders are just trying to rebalance the “cognitive dissonance” that comes from not being able to get “real jobs”. The reality is many Gig workers like the freedom, flexibility and combinatory creativity that comes with collaging.
A number of them say that they escaped the corporate machine and never want “real jobs” working for just one employer again. Their collaged gigs are a new, better way of doing life. Other Gig workers talk about transitioning, about being “between”… between careers, between jobs, between old and new locations, between a lifetime profession and retirement. Some Gig worker parents use the flexibility as an opportunity to be there for their kids on a customized schedule, earning money on their own timetable.
In today’s world, there are a myriad of ways and reasons to turn down the traditional job path and collage a work/life. It’s time to recognize and honor this choice. Even encourage it.
Lest we appear too sanguine about the new Gig Era, let’s look at the downside.
Gig workers miss the income predictability and security of health benefits that used to come with full time corporate jobs. Predictability exists only as long as the job position does. (However, most companies have greatly reduced the amount of benefits they offer and the amount they cover.)
While some Gig workers do quite well in seamlessly collaging the various ways they make a living, there are those that don’t. Some Gig workers do what some consider menial, even servant level tasks, for very little money, earning only a few thousand dollars a year and no safety net (think “Task Rabbit type” jobs running errands for others). These Gig workers need help “collaging” a career so as not to get caught in a relentless cycle of juggling many low paying gigs while building nothing for themselves.
The Gig economy is new territory and this is just the beginning. Gig workers need guidance and advice in many directions — Like our “Empire” building Lyft driver, many could use business or career advice, some need funding to create income continuity, and most need some innovations in health care and tax structures to get their needs met.
In society at large we’re going to have to decide how to support them (or not), change policies (or not). Will we expand access to financial support, health benefits, new types of tax structures in response to this shift in how work gets done? Our education system could also be redesigned to better prepare people for this changing future…how can we help students leaving school understand this new world? What will help young people better prepare to thrive in a new job world? Where can they pick up the skills to successfully collage their personally designed careers and lives?
The first step to positive change is always greater awareness. We need to bring awareness to this important new era, learn from one another and share our insights. As the saying goes “What got you here, won’t get you there”…the old models for a successful economy and life “career” that brought us to this point won’t carry us into the new world.
It’s time to begin a creative exploration and dialogue about what’s possible as we move forward in this quickly “disrupting” new economy.