Productivity sits at the root of human behaviour – doing things is what we do. As a way of assisting the survival of the species, our brain rewards us for having sex and eating. When we do these things, it releases a chemical (dopamine) that makes us happy and makes us want more. Beyond those two most primal needs, our brain also rewards us for doing things that provide safety, establish some kind of meaningful place in a community and ultimately create a sense of self. So while we might poke fun at someone or sometimes a whole country for being lazy, at the level of the species we are essentially busy beings. That so many of us work for most of our lives is simple evidence of this fact.
The way in which we work in modern cities is changing, not just the type of work we are doing. Our tasks are constantly redefined by the increasing role of technology and the kind of relationships we have with people who pay us for our work are also changing. In modern Western economies, we have been witnessing the rise of the freelancer. From Australia to America, where 40 per cent of the workforce are expected to be freelancers by 2022, the number of people entering the ‘gig economy’ is remarkable and is likely to rise over the ensuing decades.
“What if freelancing turns out to be good from afar but far from good?”
The global ‘workplace’ has never been composed in this way, and without a historical reference point we can’t really predict the future financial or psychological outcomes with any great confidence. To start with, it is hard to even tell if the rise of freelancing is because companies are trying to keep costs down through a structure that requires fewer employee benefits and less physical space, or whether it is just that people want more freedom from their work both physically and mentally… or a combination of both.
Regardless, the move to freelance is happening very quickly and that may be because it’s so much easier to see the immediate benefits than it is to imagine the negative longer-term consequences. Our society is witnessing a very exciting shift in the way we make and give money for work, but there’s always danger in hysteria. What if freelancing turns out to be good from afar but far from good?
The word ‘freelancer’ has a kind of mythological appeal at this point in time. Most obviously it speaks to freedom, and of course there’s the romantic allusion to being a jousting knight, winning battles and making money from multiple employers who buy your skills for the highest price. The freedom of freelancing is amplified by a stylish family of services, tools, websites and self-help books to convince you that you are at your professional best when unshackled from a company. There’s Apple to make sure you can capture and edit the world around you – its products implicitly promise that you can be intellectually brilliant in a café… or on a plane… or train… or at WeWork. There’s an internet cloud above to keep you light and mobile. There’s LinkedIn to make sure everyone everywhere knows what you are good at, what you’ve been doing and when you are available to do your work that Behance has made look fantastic. There are productivity-cum-self-help books like the The 4-Hour Work Week that delude you into radically recasting the balance between work and pleasure. At the moment, freelancing and its accoutrements are sexy and almost irresistible to a young person with a sense of adventure and fun… So, basically, each and every young Western person.
But lost in the glow of this new-found work freedom is a pretty significant downside. This is where the relatively new word “precariat” becomes useful. It also describes the gig economy, but from a more negative standpoint: a group of people who, because they are freelancing, have lower certainty over where their income will come from in the future. It is a generation of people for whom employment and payment is precarious. If you are the brave or naive of the precariat, you probably don’t find that uncertainty debilitating. You think, “there will always be more work” or “I’m better than the rest, so I’ll be fine”. But what happens when you go to the bank to ask for a loan and only have multiple employers with a relatively shallow track record? What happens at a real estate agency when you want to rent and you have no real guarantee of future income? Can you trust yourself to pay your superannuation entitlements or will you dip into that cash too easily when you ‘really need it’? These are the kinds of choices and consequences that are glossed over in our current thinking about the delights of freelancing. Clearly different types of employment suit different types of people, so there is no right or wrong way to work, but it’s worthwhile thinking in more realistic terms about what’s at stake, because it’s about far more than the money a worker receives for services.
There’s a lot that the freelance and salaried tribes can learn from the other. Freelancing has really put the boot (or the lance) into big companies over the past five years, almost to the point where you are shamed if you choose a single employer for your early 20s. However, working for one company for a long time doesn’t mean that you just have to do one thing. Great businesses move young staff around for experience, they provide opportunity to travel, they allow mobile working. Sure, some big employers with out-of-touch management believe that turning up to work everyday and not knowing where you’ll be sitting is somehow thrilling and equates with freedom; those companies should be thinking more deeply about why freelancing is happening and how to provide something of its liberating spirit in a more intuitive way. Good businesses understand that keeping talent means keeping in touch with that talent’s lifestyle needs, and they are getting better at doing it.
Conversely, freelancers could learn much from the discipline and structure of big business. The reason why these companies are stable and provide long-term benefits for thousands of staff is that they generally focus on what they do well and try to do more of it, rather than skip around to whatever is interesting in the moment. Big business plans for rainy days. Big business knows that some rules are necessary, because we are not angels. Big business knows that it’s not just output but also the way you treat people along the way to producing work that counts.
Let’s not forget that only a generation ago, there wasn’t even a debate about the relative merit of freelance vs the corporate world. There were nowhere near as many options, and this choice is a good thing… We just need to choose well for ourselves by thinking honestly about the sort of person we are and then finding the right way or place to build our working life.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘Precariate’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.