Presidential candidates from Bernie Sanders to Jeb Bush have waded in to discuss Uber and what it means for the future of work. Unsurprisingly, the debate has fallen largely along partisan lines: Democrats have urged the company to offer better benefits for its drivers while Republicans have said government regulation would strangle Uber's growth.
Here's the problem: Uber is only a tiny segment of what is alternately called the New Economy, the Sharing Economy, the Gig Economy, or the Freelance Economy. Yes, there are 160,000 people across the US driving for Uber, yet this small group is becoming the center of what's being debated, regulated, and discussed, while most of the 53 million Americans working independently are largely overlooked. This is a troubling direction for the debate to continue because we are uber-simplifying what is actually a transformative shift in American life.
As co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, we've helped over 10 million people -- freelancers and service-based small business owners and their clients -- simplify their work with user-friendly cloud-based accounting software. For ten years, I've been serving a community that's growing and thriving, and yet is still relatively under-appreciated and under-served, especially given the economic impact that freelancers are making and will continue to make on the global economy. Case in point: the FreshBooks economy is tens of billions of dollars today - and on track for hundreds of billions. Not exactly couch change.
Right now, one of every three Americans is self-employed. And with studies showing Millennials more likely to go independent than prior generations, that number is only going to continue to increase. Any belief that this New Economy is a myth is delusional. We need to embrace this huge, but fragmented constituency in our society. The world is changing, maybe faster than some are comfortable with, so here's my take: let's rise up and meet the new demands and opportunities in front of us... just like freelancers themselves are doing.
People are working on their own because they want flexibility and self-determination. More than 60 percent of freelancers say they chose their independent lifestyle, according to a study from the Freelancers Union, and most say they wouldn't return to working under someone else for any amount of money. But let's be clear - these people aren't victims; in fact, 60 percent of freelancers say they earn more than they did when traditionally employed, with 78 percent of that group making more in a year or less. These are men and women continuing in the long tradition of American entrepreneurialism that extends from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs. At its foundation, freelancing, you might say, builds on the very principle of American self-determination which holds that those who work hard will prosper and succeed.
That's not to say that all is right for those operating in the New Economy, and the reality is that it's difficult to make smart policy because we just don't know enough about these men and women and their businesses. The U.S. government stopped its 'Contingent Workers Survey' in 2005. And researchers say the limited data the Labor Department does collect ignores huge categories of people who are self-employed. At best, we are operating without hard data describing what's going on for this group of men and women. At worst, we are creating policy without even acknowledging freelancers.
That said there's enough of a base of knowledge out there (and at FreshBooks we see and hear about this from our customers every day) to conclude that most of those in the New Economy aren't being served properly by our current economic and social structures. Everything from mortgages to tax filing to Social Security was designed in and for an era when nearly every American worked for a company and got a regular paycheck. That era has long passed. We need a new mindset for a new era, one where working on your own is as common as working for someone else.
With all that said, here are some parting thoughts...
The freelance life is a lot like survival in the wilderness. It can be a daunting, dangerous place. But much like those tested by nature, the right people are becoming freelancers and emerging stronger. Freelancing requires an appetite for risk and a capacity for self-motivation. For many, setting one's schedule, fully owning the results of one's efforts, focusing on their clients' happiness -in short, being their own boss--make this shift in lifestyle worth the challenges and perceived risks of going out on your own. It is no surprise that those suited to this way of doing business often find it immensely rewarding.
In many ways, freelancers are defining the American dream for the modern era. With their ingenuity and innovation, they are carving a path for their future success and for many to follow behind them. The least we can do is get on board the moving freight train that is the New Economy by pulling real information together on who the men and women paving the future are, what their needs are, and understand the real impact that they're already having on our world - and use it to make the world a better place for everyone.
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