Who Broke the Job: Businesses, Workers, or the Internet?

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Photo: Lee Scott

Depending on which jobs reports you read, the month of December was either totally flat or…. slightly better than flat. Gallup’s index shows that job creation “may have plateaued,” while ADP shows an addition of nearly a quarter-million new jobs, about half of which came from small businesses, during that same period. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers won’t be released until later in the week, it’s probably a safe assumption that it’ll show much some the same: Some new hiring, some hopeful data, and a still not-totally-clear picture of what the American workforce actually looks like.

But there are other markers to consult, too — like those which also count the numbers of sole proprietors, freelancers, and the rest of those millions of Americans who have gone to work for themselves. Because among all of those numbers, and there are many, the ones which have continually netted the most rosy outlook in the past year have been those which show people redefining the job market and relying more and more on their own hustle.

In a piece for Pacific Standard, Kyle Chayka called 2014 “the year the job broke.”

“Or, at least,” he explains, “We accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain. Businesses — actually massive technological platforms of a size heretofore only attained by government infrastructure — moved to disrupt our concept of the full-time job by encouraging the idea that, on the internet, we are all working for ourselves rather than each other.”

And indeed, business did look different in 2014. Across the pond, Moo found that 1/3 of UK workers were fueling the economy with their creative side-projects, raking in an extra £15bn (or almost $18 billion US dollars) in total. Meanwhile, oDesk found that, just within their network of freelancers, an additional $900 million were made by people working for themselves. According to a report from the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are currently engaged in some form of freelance work, whether it’s their full-time job, or something they do on the side to make extra money. According to their numbers, freelancers generated about $700 million in the previous year.

But who broke the job? Because it certainly wasn’t businesses themselves. Instead, it seems, it was workers who are finding, more and more, that the most reliable employer is themselves.

“Freelancers from around the world have helped 3.7 million businesses get work done this year through Elance-oDesk,” writes Senior Vice President of Marketing Jaleh Bisharat, “They’ve tapped into their entrepreneurial spirit to carve niches, create fulfilling careers, and beat challenging economic times.”

This requirement of self-reliance — of hustle, of entrepreneurship — is a double-edged sword, points out Chayka.

“We are not all entrepreneurs, nor can all of us aspire or afford to be!” he points out. “To argue that the disappearance of the job is an emancipation rather than a bereavement is to force the ideology of start-ups on all workers even though a culture of mutual support has not emerged between technology companies and the larger population.”

Still, for those who are exploring freelancing as a choice (and, perhaps, also as a reaction to the unpredictability of the conventional workforce, where amenities like health care benefits and regular raises have begun to be viewed as nice perks rather than the standard), freelancing is offering a potential alternative avenue. But it does require its own skill-set, which is driving an entirely separate-but-related industry of self-education. The autodidact is more in-demand than ever, as designers learn to write, writers learn to code, and everyone, letterer and artist Jessica Hische explained in her Creative Mornings talk, needs to “learn everything you can.”

In addition to having conventional skills that people will pay you for, freelancers need also to have a robust toolbox of emotional abilities. Resilience and self-reliance are more than just the personality quirks that help spur workers into making the jump to freelance life, they’re also necessary in a climate where your own best boss might be you.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.