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Can Freelancing for All be the Future of Work?

Homeworking Preferred By Freelancers - Jason Pack
As globalization, technology and economic reconfiguration take hold, most people’s future patterns of working are changing. But can everybody be freelance?

Shift Happens is not the only site to warn that young people are being prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist; that world change is happening exponentially fast, and learners of 2010 will have 10-14 jobs before they are 40.

In November 2010 the Professional Contractors Group: PGC ‘the voice of freelancing in the UK’, held its first National Freelancers’ Day to promote the career choice that increasing numbers of people are adopting as traditional job opportunities change, or disappear altogether. A message from the Prime Minister added official endorsement to the concept.

It’s not just the UK that is waking up to an emerging freelance workforce of around 1.4m. The USA recognises over 40 million ‘independent workers’, Canada has 2.7m people self-employed, France around 300,000, Australia 2.1m self employed (1m independent contractors), Italy at least half a million and The Netherlands about 9% of the total workforce.

Some Expert Future Predictions

Futurologist Dr James Bellini argued at the freelancing day in London that ‘career’ and ‘job’ need to catch up with the ‘fluid, flexible, trust-based and collegiate concept of wealth-making practices’ in the digital age. He felt that knowledge-based technologies were transforming the ‘working machine’, the ‘wealth of networks’.

He thought that by 2020, 80% of UK working adults would no longer travel to a desk. Their specializations would be replaced by ‘work eco-systems dependent on contingent freelancers’. Tim Jones, Programme Director of The Future Agenda, concurred with the view that value creation would shift away from traditional boundaries to ‘embrace people interested in portfolio careers’.

Another futurologist, Ian Pearson of Futurizon, said that automation/robotics would replace people in administrative intelligence-requiring work, and the future would demand human contact skills: emotional, caring, interpersonal and communication. He thought a hospital consultant easier to automate than a nurse. A consultant is ‘an expert system linked to a complicated brain’; a nurse is about people, hands-on.

Tom Austin, Vice President of Gartner thought the world would need ‘organizational agility’ along lines of ‘swarming behaviours’. New forms of teaming/swarming to attack problems will be gathered to attack a problem, then dissipate. The freelancer will work in different swarms, according to skill, experience and price. Andi Britt of IBM supported the view from IBM global research of 700 organizations, that teams will form quickly, collaborate, share, unconstrained by organizational and geographical boundaries’.

The Pros of Freelancing

Seth Godin, world famous freelance entrepreneur, maintained: ‘An artist is someone who brings humanity to a problem, bringing creativity and insight to work, instead of choosing to be a compliant cog’. Sir Tom Farmer, founder of the Kwik-Fit empire, believed that a leaner organization was the way forward, with certain functions outsourced routinely.

So an argument for freelancing begins to stack up. The rapid eroding of traditional jobs and ways of doing almost everything are an incentive to get ahead and start marketing skills freely, widely and openly. The freedom to work when people want (allowing for the economic necessities of life), being one’s own boss, the end of 9-5 and daily commutes in expensive, crowded, inflexible transport systems must strike a chord with many people who are frustrated, numbed and weary with working practices today. The ability to fix fees/charges and the sheer variety of the jobs are equally powerful appeals.

The skills of IT, writing, media relations and PR, accounting, law, management and change-leading consultancies are easily seen to fit into freelancing working models. Other job areas do not apparently fit so well. However, retailing, repairing and even manufacturing are forms of freelance. A business sets up to sell, make, fix a product and must market it.

The Freelancing Cons

This sounds exciting enough for those who can think in abstracts, and are not affected by loss of their jobs through changing technologies and practices. There are more downsides to bear in mind than being locked in previous modes of thinking, too. Tax restrictions can be big hurdles. In the UK particularly the tax authorities do not like self-employment and freelancing, and through their infamous form IR35 make it deliberately difficult in their attempt to tax the ‘hidden economy’.

Job security, paid holidays and sick leave are not readily given up by people conditioned to rely on them. The need to keep and/or pay for comprehensive accounting records, own insurances and legitimate/taxable expenses can be quite daunting, even off-putting.

Gary Barber, who describes himself as an ‘independent User Experience Designer’ pointed out that some of the other downsides to freelancing include: cash flow; bad debtors; getting credit lines; getting enough work often against larger, slicker outfits of freelancers; managing sporadic gluts of work; separating home/office situations and the isolation of that way of working. Freelancers don’t always own their work: that could be a drawback for creative people.

Nobody Really Knows the Future

Seeing into the future is clouded in mystery; predictions are notoriously difficult and over the years there have been some monumental failures. However, some things are reasonably safe to assume: technology can only advance (though some think there is a finite amount of cyberspace available and a limit on what the human brain can cope with); the world has a potential problem with energy and water supplies down the road. Even guessing the size, shape and scope of school buildings and universities of tomorrow is but a stab in the dark, building on what seems likely.

While the past is both fascinating and a source of career choice, it’s clear that ways of working are changing beyond recall. If everybody was self-employed, hiring him/herself out, keeping almost all their earnings, buying health/education/food as required, based from home, families being more responsible for their own, harnessing the benefits of technology, would that mean an end to big government, taxes, restrictions?

Or would people have to reinvent them in the name of defence, health and safety, protecting the vulnerable and rationing resources?

First published on Suite 101, 26 November 2010.

Photo: Homeworking Preferred By Freelancers – Jason Pack

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