By now, we all know that the future of work is autonomous, location-independent, skill-based, and increasingly creative. Studies predict that more than 50% of the US workforce will be freelance by 2020 and global GDP is expected to get a $2.7 trillion boost from “gig economy” roles by 2025.
At this point, we can continue to talk about trends, predictions, studies, and surveys -- or we can look at the people whose lives are already being transformed by the modern labor market.
By looking at real people who exemplify the future of work, we break the stereotypes that have been popularized by the mainstream media. We see that this type of work is no longer limited to web developers and bloggers. The workplace of the future is open to all kinds of industries: fashion, film production, translation, finance, writing, logistics, healthcare, tourism, management consulting, and music. Millions of contract employees, self-employed freelancers, location-independent entrepreneurs, remote employees, and part-time workers have created their own jobs, sometimes out of necessity as much as the desire to work from the beach.
These faces of the future of work are now also propagating their attitudes towards work as they hire their own employees and manage new companies with remote or freelance workers. It’s a cycle that will gradually free all of us from the Industrial Revolution models of work -- or hurl the unprepared office worker headfirst into an unrecognizable employment landscape.
It’s a reality check that forces us to recognize that the future of work is already here.
Silvan Jongerius, 33, Berlin, Germany
Originally from the Netherlands, Silvan Jongerius is the Founder and CEO of TwoTwoOne, a flight search engine that helps friends in different cities find the best place to meet. He started his first company when he was 19 and today makes his living from multiple income streams that he’s gradually built up over the past 14 years.
Jongerius says that although he is completely location independent and regularly works from Europe, Asia, or Central America, he still spends a significant amount of time in Europe’s start-up capital, Berlin, in order to maintain relationships that are essential to his businesses. Like many full-time employees, he also has to put in a degree of “face time” to be successful.
“I love my lifestyle because it lets me choose the optimal environment for every project I’m working on. I can be exactly where I need to be to get inspired. In the end, my work is about my output, not about the amount of hours I spend achieving it.”
Diane Pulvino, 31, Raleigh, NC
Self-employed copywriter, Dianepulvino.com
While many independent workers choose this lifestyle for the flexibility to travel or for the sense of autonomy, others create their own jobs out of necessity.
"I graduated at one of the worst times in history, and I couldn't find a job in my field (communications) to save my life. Finally, I decided I'd have to create my own. I spent two years pounding the pavement: hanging up signs at local college campuses, posting to Craigslist, and working as a nanny to make money on the side. One day, the man whose child I babysat for said his start-up needed copywriters. Over time, I began to take on more work, and as the company grew, people began to leave. Those people moved to other companies, and those new companies also needed copywriting services. The old employees recommended me. Over time and through word of mouth, I’ve become able to sustain myself and earn enough to pay the mortgage by doing what I love: writing and editing. It also gives me the autonomy to spend time at home with my two sons.”
Marc Augustine, 34, Nicaragua
Marc Augustine came to the US from Trinidad in 2001 and became a digital nomad in 2005 -- way before the term was even coined.
Necessity also drove him into this lifestyle. After graduating from university, Marc married an American, which allowed him to stay in the US but didn’t allow him to work for an American company. A hustler by nature, Augustine launched a finance blog that started making money after a year and he now earns a full-time income as the CEO of a drop shipping service called DS Genie. He is also the Founder of Grind Camp, a home for like-minded independent workers who come to work and learn together in Nicaragua. He’s been living in Central America since 2010.
“I don’t like the term ‘digital nomad.’ It’s a buzzword that doesn’t fully express the extent to which this way of working is democratizing labor and changing the economy. It also doesn’t convey how hard we have to work -- this lifestyle requires way more discipline than most. I created this life for myself because, above all, I’m a problem-solver.”
Heather Backlas, 29, Buffalo, NY
Freelance contractor, television and film production; Marketing professional
Heather Backlas broke into Hollywood by walking onto the set of The Jersey Shore and asking for a job during a spontaneous trip to New Jersey back in 2012. Three days later, she started her first gig as a Production Assistant and has been moving up the industry ladder for the past five years.
“I see so many college graduates struggling to find a job in their field. Like them, I also couldn’t find one, so I created my own and I believe anyone can do the same. You can either have your dream job or you can work for someone else who has theirs. I’ve been freelancing for 7 years and my career continues to grow and expand in ways I never thought it could. Now I know anything is possible because I’m the driver of my career. I wish more people understood how much more fulfilling their jobs could be if they just took the wheel.”
Over the years, Backlas learned to go where the work was, shuffling between her hometown of Buffalo, NY and New York City to serve on the production teams of Law and Order, House Hunters, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Song One, and Orange is the New Black. She’s now working as the Production Coordinator on a new feature film.
While contract work in the film industry is nothing new, today’s gig economy has made it possible for Heather to also hold a professional role in marketing for a company based in Buffalo, one of the ways she’s able to float herself through the ups and downs of contract work. She serves as a brand ambassador, working full-time between films and part-time or not at all when she’s busy on set.
“I’ve very fortunate to find a company -- and a boss -- who is so supportive of my passion and allows me to take time off during projets. I think it's rare to find a traditional company who ‘gets it.’”
Pauleanna Reid, 29, Toronto, Canada
Freelance Writer, Author, Speaker, Pauleannareid.com
On the day of her final exam from university, Pauleanna Reid got up, walked out of the classroom, and never looked back. Despite not having a degree, she has spent the past eight years creating her dream job based on multiple streams of income and often balancing full-time corporate roles to fund her own ideas -- an important trend in the workplace of the future.
“I’ve always been willing to take unconventional roads to get where I want to be. Everyone thought I was crazy (for not finishing college). My parents were not impressed. Of course, a lot of people doubted me, but that just added fuel to my fire. That’s how I operate. All the doubt and failure just motivated me to prove everyone wrong who thought I couldn’t win unless I played by the rules.”
While working as an assistant to high-level executives from 2009 to 2017, Reid started writing cover stories for Canada’s leading newspapers, covering business and consumer topics and published her own best-selling book, “Everything I Couldn’t Tell My Mother.” She also managed her own successful blog, founded a ghostwriting firm, and launched a mentorship program, New Girl on the Block, which now generate the majority of her income. She also earns money from motivational speaking, journalism, and royalties from her book.
“In the past, work was something you did between certain hours, in a certain place. That’s just not how it is anymore. Of course, a lot of people still have a 9-5 at a corporate office, but for a lot of us, work is a lot more complex than that. My job is anywhere, anytime, doing all the things I’m skilled at. I am my work. The best part is that the interest and opportunity for writing work are steady, so even without a “traditional job,” I’m not struggling for work. Unlike a lot of jobs that have gone the way of automation, writing is a human skill and one that influences so many parts of our society—films, books, TV, music, and more. We’ll always need it, so I’ll always have a job.”
Chris Burdick, 33, Berlin, Germany
Originally from North Carolina, Chris Burdick has been living out of a backpack for more than five years and has no plans to give up his nomadic lifestyle. He started an online automobile magazine as a passion project 11 years ago and eventually was eventually able to leave his full-time job as a web developer thanks to advertising revenues, partnerships, and sponsored content.
“There’s this misconception that working remotely is a permanent holiday, but I work really hard. Flexibility and freedom doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility.”
However, Chris found himself losing interest in the blogosphere, noting the limited value creation that characterizes some of the digital nomad space (full-time travelers selling online courses and ebooks on how to become full-time travelers without a real business model behind their lifestyle). Wanting a business with tangible goods, Burdick was able to use his savings from Automoblog to bootstrap the Lemur Bags ecommerce platform and now his biggest challenge is actually keeping the products in stock.
“After extensive travel in Asia, I developed an interest in conversation and philanthropy -- I realized that even one person can really make a difference. After finding this product in Thailand and using it for years, I tracked down the manufacturer, negotiated a wholesale agreement, and now sell them under my own brand -- with 15% of the profits going to lemur conservation.”
Nerissa Bradley, 27, Toronto, Canada
Founder, Artlet; Performing Artist
Nerissa Bradley has built a career at the intersection of art and business, working as a performer while running a business that helps others become more creative themselves. She’s the Founder and CEO of Artlet, an arts and wellness company that she’s built from an after-work side project to viable venture over the past five years. She’s also a singer, theater performer, voice coach, and actress. (You can find her on stage for Toronto’s production of Dreamgirls this fall.)
“I really believe the future of work is collaborative. People no longer need to sit in an office desk and wait to be told what to do. People also do more than one thing. Salesmen drive for Uber and startup directors have a carpentry business on the side. My example shows that you can bring all of your many skills and talents to the table and make a living from each of your various skill sets.”
Bradley started her journey into the performance world as a wedding and event singer back in 2012 while working a day job as a publisher and project manager for a content marketing company, where she gained valuable skills in sales and marketing. After that, she worked as a project coordinator in utility services, which was a flexible full-time job, offering several days per week of remote work that helped support her creative life.
“Any business owner or artist knows that money can come in droves or not at all. For me, it was important to balance out my income with side jobs as I continued to build my brands and business. My ‘day jobs’ have also helped me fill knowledge gaps and better myself as an entrepreneur.”
Valentina Atehortua Quintero, 27, Medellin, Colombia
Country Manager, HealthAtom
Valentina Atehortua Quintero is a country manager for Chilean company HealthAtom, managing their business expansion in her home country of Colombia. Quintero has been with HealthAtom for two and a half years and has witnessed retention rates and employee morale skyrocket since the company implemented a remote work policy in 2014.
In 2016, Valentina spent over 5 months working remotely outside of Colombia and is currently spending a month at Grind Camp in Nicaragua with other independent workers from around the world.
“HealthAtom encourages our personal as well as professional development. My colleagues and I want to stay with this company because we have both flexibility and support. The company benefits from employees who have a healthy a work-life balance: happy employees mean lower turnover and continuous collective growth.”
Dan and Casey Moore, 28, USA/Costa Rica
Husband and wife team Dan and Casey Moore have been nomads since 2011 when they launched their blog, A Cruising Couple. After about six months of full-time effort, the couple was able to earn a living, admitting that $2,000 per month was more than enough to live well in Asia. The success of their blog partnerships evolved organically into their latest venture, Untethered Media, which develops digital marketing strategies for tourism businesses worldwide.
“I'll always remember when we got our first sponsor for A Cruising Couple - it was only for around $300, but it was at that moment we knew we could scale this into something to support our location-independent lifestyle. Now there’s no ceiling to what we can achieve by working for ourselves.”
Originally from North Carolina, they spend half their time in Costa Rica and the other half traveling overseas. Being CEOs of their own company also allows them to perpetuate the kind of forward-thinking work culture they value by hiring remote workers of their own from London, India, and the US.
Kenny Haisfield, 26, Bali, Indonesia
CEO, Kenny Flowers
Kenny Haisfield left a position at IBM consulting, moved to Bali, and started an online business selling Hawaiian shirts.
“I liked what I was doing with IBM, but the learning curve was going flat and I knew I was getting too comfortable.”
Starting a brand in an industry he knew nothing about seemed like the logical next step. Using his consulting savings and basing himself in Bali, he was able to keep his costs of living low and be his own investor. Minimizing financial stress, he notes, helped him focus on the business.
“Sometimes people assume I’m just on vacation, but the reality is I’m running and managing a digital store -- dealing with customers every day and doing things to better market and expand my brand online.”
He’s also very good at doing what millennials do better than anyone: giving their brands a personality that resonates in the market. People want to buy a Kenny Flowers shirt because, more than anything, they are buying Kenny and his lifestyle.
Jon Gartner, 29, Nashville, TN
Self-employed, musician, producer, and translator, Jongartner.com
Since graduating university in 2010, Jon Gartner has balanced multiple income streams to keep himself firmly outside the cubicle.
Fluent in Mandarin, his main form of income comes from editing and translating Chinese literature, in addition to writing and producing content for the television and music industries. Gartner is also a self-produced musician, writing, recording, mixing, and mastering his own singles on a record label he founded in 2011.
“My example is an example of multi-faceted specialization. I think the future of work will require competency in multiple creative aspects. For me, I am constantly asking if any skill I develop is replaceable by robots. Everything I do has a creative and spiritual element to it.”
Jon lives full-time in Nashville, where his music career is firmly rooted, but also likes to spend a month or two out of the road every year.
“To me, the lower wages, lack of benefits, and uncertainty are totally cancelled out by the flexibility. I can go anywhere and do whatever I want as long as deadlines are met. I’ve told everyone that I will take living in a cardboard box over working in a cubicle every day of the week, so I hope it never comes down to that.”
Beyond the Statistics
By examining the real faces of the “future of work,” we see how these examples illustrate a few key points that are supported, but not always understood, by statistics alone.
- More workers are juggling multiple income streams. While there are conflicting statistics about the rise of the freelance workforce, the “1099 workforce” is growing. Gig economy workers are building multiple income streams to reflect their multitude of interests and talents -- and to bridge gaps on their balance sheets. All of our faces earn their living through multiple channels.
- More employers are offering flexible work arrangements. A 2016 Princeton study found that the percentage of workers in “alternative work arrangements was up 10.1% from a decade prior, at 15.8%.” As we saw with Heather, Valentina, Nerissa, and Silvan, remote or flexible working arrangements benefit both employer and employee.
- Location-independent workers are not always driven by the desire to travel. The “digital nomad” fad has ignored that not having to go into an office also benefits working moms like Diane, creative souls who work best at home like Jon in Nashville, or citizens of other countries who may not be able to be hired to work for a company where they choose to live, like Marc experienced after marrying an American. Sometimes people with the ability to travel non-stop also get tired of the glamorized nomadic lifestyle and happily settle down in one location, like Dan and Casey in Costa Rica, Chris and Silvan in Berlin, and Kenny in Indonesia.
- Independent workers are honing in on creative fields that are less susceptible to automation. In addition to the popularized tech entrepreneur, many freelancers, entrepreneurs, and contractors work in creative fields like music (Jon), performance (Nerissa), writing (Diane and Pauleanna), film (Heather), fashion (Kenny), and design (Chris, Dan and Casey) that require a distinctly human touch to make them excellent. The British government found creative industries outpacing the rest of the economy and an American study found creative freelancers made more money than other types of self-employed workers. The future is creative.
- Earning a full-time income as an entrepreneur or independent worker can take years to achieve. All of our faces took years to transition their ventures from passion projects into profit-turning businesses, a fact often glossed over in the media’s sexy stories about overnight entrepreneurs.