Join the Insurgency Against the Jobs Crisis

Unemployed worker Maryam Fereydouni looks for clerical work at an employment center in Menlo Park, Calif., Friday, Aug. 17, 2
Unemployed worker Maryam Fereydouni looks for clerical work at an employment center in Menlo Park, Calif., Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. California's jobless rate remained unchanged at 10.7 percent in July as the state saw slow employment growth, adding a little more than 25,000 jobs. The figure released Friday by the state Employment Development Department is an improvement over California's 11.9 percent unemployment rate a year ago but also is a sign of the state's slow recovery. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Back on Track or a New Path?

The latest cover of Harvard Magazine has a black and white photograph of an assembly line for 1959 Ford automobiles and the headline, "The American Economy: Can it get back on track?." While the article inside provides some very useful analysis of our current economic predicament, we couldn't help but feel that the cover was asking the wrong question.

Solving our economic woes and jobs crisis requires us to first ask the right questions. The question of how to get Americans working again is critical as unemployment takes its toll on families and communities, but this crisis has also opened up an important choice about the future of work in America. We can make jobs for jobs' sake, or we can rebuild our economy with good jobs that reflect our values.

Jobs with Purpose

We need to redefine what "good jobs" mean and then create them. We need to look at the margins and start from the bottom up. This requires a shift in our attitudes and policies in support of the economic insurgents, agile, disruptive start-up enterprises, instead of continuing to prop up the same incumbent institutions of subsidized big businesses and crony capitalists.

Good jobs come from supporting more companies that embody new economy models and deliver social and economic value at the same time. These companies often have more loyal consumer bases and more productive employees who are motivated by intrinsic value and higher purpose in their work. Dev Aujla and Billy Parish, authors of Making Good, explain: "There are companies reinventing, redesigning and rebuilding every single industry in a way that does good and they are the ones that are hiring." This represents a fundamental shift. Top graduates today are turning away from careers in high finance and toward jobs with a higher purpose. Aujla and Parish assert: "The last generation made its money tearing the world apart, our generation is going to make its money putting it back together."

For example, Warby Parker has grown 500 percent since launching in 2010. Its growth has come mainly from word of mouth. It delivers customer value by cutting out middlemen to sell designer glasses for $95 and social value through giving away free glasses to people in need.

"The Networked Commons"

Jan Rivkin, head of Harvard Business School's strategy unit, refers to the notion of the "business commons" from which companies draw. The business commons includes "a skilled workforce, an educated populace, vibrant local suppliers, basic rule of law, and so on." Our public policy's failure to keep up with change and the increased ease with which corporations can move production overseas have eroded the U.S. business commons.

However, a more promising trend is emerging: entrepreneurs and insurgent innovators are working to repair the business commons and create a new "networked commons," an ecosystem of peer-to-peer communication and coordination tools and institutions upon which entrepreneurs can create new economic and social value.

Here are some of the most exciting examples:

Address the Skills Gap

Skillshare, a community marketplace of classes, allows anyone to learn anything from anyone. It offers a way to address our need to learn and develop new skills. Skillshare has enabled educators to make supplemental income and even a full-time living by teaching. CEO Mike Karnjanaprakorn reported that Skillshare teachers can make up to $1,000 per class. The HuffPost recently reported about Avi Flombaum, a Skillshare educator who made $100,000 a year and quit his day job.

We have opened our own School of Purpose on Skillshare with classes to help equip other social innovators do their work more effectively. We have seen in our own journey growing from nothing to a team of more than 75 people in just over three years that there is tremendous demand for meaningful work. Thousands of accomplished candidates apply for jobs at Purpose. We have seen plenty of passion and drive, but also a gap in the specific skills necessary to do our multidisciplinary work in building movements.

To address this gap, we offer a Fellows program for recent graduates and early career social change makers to get on-the-job experience in movement building. We have a curriculum to train our new full-time staff called Purpose U, which includes modules in social change strategy, online organizing and mass digital participation, and user and community centered design. We will soon open up Purpose U to allow others to come learn with us and to help make the transition to jobs with meaning.

New Ways of to Fund Creativity and Reach New Customers

Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGogo make it easier for creative producers to raise money for their projects, and they're creating jobs and entirely new kinds of economic activity in the process. These tools foster new kinds of robust social and economic relationships between supporters and creative producers. In 2012, Kickstarter is on track to distribute over $150 million to users' creative projects, more than the more than entire fiscal year 2012 budget of $146 million for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).

Etsy gives makers of handmade items a place to promote and sell their wares to new audiences and resulted in a huge flourishing of the DIY goods economy. Etsy's 800,000-strong community of active sellers has grossed $500 million in sales so far in 2012 (as of mid-August).

Organize and Enable Independent Entrepreneurs

The Freelancers Union provides health insurance for its network of independent workers not covered by full-time employment benefits and not represented by traditional organized labor and trade organizations. The Freelancers Union has leveraged its position from affordable health insurance provider to grow a political constituency to advocate for policy changes that would better support the freelance economy.

The growth of the co-working movement has demonstrated that co-working spaces provide much more than affordable access to office space and infrastructure, as these spaces also provide community, camaraderie, and potential new collaborations. The Hub combines an international network of co-working spaces with a social startup accelerator, The Hub Ventures.

Combine Entrepreneurship with Advocacy

As the Freelancers Union has demonstrated, it is important to combine entrepreneurial innovation with collective action. While the passage of the JOBS Act showed a rare case of bipartisan policymaking for the good of the networked commons, we need a much stronger, better-organized movement in support of the networked commons and in opposition to rent-seekers and crony capitalists.

There is plenty of room for improvement. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has argued that political gridlock in Washington over the budget threatens to weaken our R&D and innovation advantage. Fighting political gridlock is nearly impossible in an environment where members of Congress are beholden to the special interests that fund their campaigns.

Lawrence Lessig reports that members of Congress spend 30 percent to 70 percent of their time raising money for reelection. That is time spent chasing money from interest groups and billionaires, rather than time spent enacting laws that benefit constituents and help build the networked commons.

Without reforming the way we finance our politics, we have little hope in making the policy changes we need to address the jobs crisis because the old incumbents will always have more influence than the bottom-up insurgents. That is why we have recently formed in partnership with United Republic and Lessig to advocate for new rules to counter the corrupting influence of money in politics.

Albert Einstein said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." We need new thinking and new politics to build the networked commons and solve the jobs crisis.