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Contingent, Transient and at Risk: Modern Workers in a Gig Economy

This transformation of the American workplace will be as profound for 21st century as the Industrial Revolution's shift from farms to factories was for the 19th century.
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America is transforming before our eyes, and with our focus on the short-term economic crisis, we are blind to what might very well be the most fundamental economic shift of the past 50 years: the nine-to-five, 40-hour-week job with benefits and some security is fast going the way of the compact disc. It still exists, barely, but is more of an echo than a modern reality. According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, almost 30 percent of all Americans work contingently as free agents, contractors, day laborers, consultants or are self-employed.

This transformation of the American workplace will be as profound for 21st century as the Industrial Revolution's shift from farms to factories was for the 19th century. One of the fastest growing contingent worker groups today is college-educated, white-collar professionals. They grew up thinking they would lead lives of economic security and corporate advancement. Now they jump from job to job, career to career and project to project working as consultants. Current estimates predict that this trend will only continue to increase in the coming years. Imagine, by 2020 maybe as many as 50 percent of all collars, working on a contingent basis, with a growing majority of them consisting of college-educated, white-collar and professional classes. What was the old middle class, as confusing as such terms can be, may just become part of the new working-class majority.

The shift from nine-to-five jobs to a gig economy has fundamentally forced us to rethink our relationship to work and the centrality work plays in all our lives. This sea change has brought with it a new work ethic that values multitasking, embedded communities of workers, the blending of leisure and work activity, and the rise of creativity and independence, along with money as co-measures of success. We seem to be returning to a craft sensibility as workers blend leisure and work and work harder, faster, and longer, but also find time to squeeze in a social life too. They constantly work, as defined blocks of time are meaningless for them. This squeezing in, mixing, or blending completely blurs the lines between social and work worlds. Most accept this quickened pace because they get some enjoyment out of work by finding ways to make a living doing things they are passionate about. They are combinations of 19th-century craftsman, outworkers and high-tech gurus. They struggle in what they may not yet fully understand as a continually shrinking economy.

The last time we witnessed such a massive shift in the way we work and think about work was the 1950s. In 1956, no book better depicted the new development than William Whyte's The Organization Man. America was becoming a nation of white-collar workers, leaving behind its blue-collar roots. Whyte, a sociologist whose book catapulted to the bestseller list, captured the angst and compromises that accompanied the mid-twentieth-century world of the white-collar workers. Most had been raised with a blue-collar ethos rooted in the Great Depression, and many still clung to what Whyte called an antiquated attitude toward work that would get them nowhere. Whyte argued that the Protestant work ethic, which was the predominate ethos of the previous 100-plus years, was dead by the 1950s. He identified a new three-part social compact that had recently developed but was previously not, he said, defined: "A belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in 'belongingness' as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve the belongingness."

There is a pressing need for a historical understanding of this current shift. First, few journalists see freelancers as workers. They instead see them as what Richard Florida calls "the creative class." Yet these white-collar folks are workers. And, in the new economy, collar doesn't signify class the way it once did.

The reality is much more complex than our journalistic literature reveals, and the current lack of nuance should worry us all. Micropreneurial, freelancing, is both low-wage and lucrative, both dead-end and limitless, depending how one focuses the lens and what skills one possesses. Who wouldn't want to be their own boss, control their career, and pursue their creative talents? Yet few Americans can position themselves to take advantage of the new situation. This means that a whole new army of workers is being created who do not recognize their class status and therefore are cut off from labor and working-class organizational traditions. They do not even have an echo of memory of labor activism. The biggest hurdles they face deal with having them recognize that their economic insecurity is a result of larger economic and structural forces that, as individuals, they can not surmount. They need to realize they are not alone and the only way out, the only way to a decent and secure life, will be the result of structural changes, and that will only come through some form of organized political pressure.

Hopeful examples might be the Freelancers Union (FU), which has over 140,000 members, and Occupy Wall Street. The hope for American freelancers will be in collective activity to bring on political change. We seem to be living in a transformational political time. It might be possible that what we are witnessing with the Occupy Wall Street movement is what the former secretary of labor Robert Reich has called "only the tip of the iceberg."

It seems that many, including freelancers (this growing group of once privileged and educated workers), might now be recognizing the structural and economic issues confronting them. They are joining with unionized workers in a movement. What comes out of this could be very interesting. I am excited to watch and hope.

Copyright © 2012 by Richard Greenwald, "Contingent, Transient, and at Risk: Modern Workers in a Gig Economy," originally appeared in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America edited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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