Category Archives: “New Mutualism”

Annual report: Freelancing in America 2017

Every year the Freelancers Union*  produces a report on “Freelancing in America”.

This year’s report follows up the 2016 report, asserting that 57.3 million workers are freelancing, including 47% of “millennials” [2].   The total is up from 55 million in 2016 and 54 million in 2015. They project forward from these figures to imagine that freelancers will be more than 50% of workers by 2027.

As in the previous reports, this report defines “freelancer” to be “Individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract- based work, within the past 12 months.” [1] However, examining the methodology, these labels are misleading (from [1]):

Diversified Workers (a mix of employment, including freelancing) (35% / 19.8 million)

Independent Contractors (full or part time) (31% of the independent workforce / 17.7 million professionals)

Moonlighters (23% / 13.0 million)

Freelance Business Owners (who define themselves as “freelance workers”) (6% / 3.4 million)

Clearly, the number of freelance workers who have the equivalent to a full time job is much smaller than 57 millions, perhaps 20-30 million depending on how you classify self-employed business owners. (Considering this, the future projection is even less believable.)

I quibble about this point because the report portrays freelancing as the future of work, and paints a rosy picture. However, if the future of work is mainly about underemployment and self-employment, this is not such a rosy picture.

In this survey, the self-identified full time freelancers report an average of 34 hours of work per week [1]. In addition, freelancers report income unpredictability, low savings, and high debt. Many freelancers rely on ACA for health insurance, which is highly uncertain at this time.

In short, freelancers may report high satisfaction, and a determination to never choose conventional employment, the objective measures describe marginal employment, and possibly a race to the bottom.


The 2017 report focuses on several impacts of technology. Obviously, the gig economy is enabled by digital technology, and a majority of freelancers report finding work online.

The report spins freelancing as an adaptation to the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Freelancers report anxiety about AI and robotics displacing them. Nearly half of them say that they have already been affected. Freelancers expect technical change, and upgrade their skills frequently. (Online job services are a good guide to chasing the demand for specific skills.)

It is clear that freelancers are in the front lines of this revolution, though it isn’t clear that they are doing better than other workers, or that freelancing is either necessary or sufficient to survive.


Sara Horowitz demands that we “don’t call it the gig economy”. Nearly half of freelancers prefer to call it “the freelance economy” [3]. That’s fine, and obviously its the Freelancers Union, not the Gig Workers Union. (Though The Gig Workers of the World would be a great name for either a union or a rock band. Slogan: “Gig Strong! Gig power!”)

Look, I’m a member of the FU, and I strongly support the union and stand with my fellow workers (whatever they care to call themselves). One for all, and all for one.

But I can’t let this kind of misuse of data pass without objection.

Freelancing is important, and it is a significant part of the new way of work. But it isn’t reasonable to claim that it is going to be the predominant mode of employment any time soon (if ever). And if it does dominate the economy, it will be an economy characterized by massive under employment, economic insecurity, and poverty.

The whole point of the FU is prevent the last part from coming true. Let’s not lie to ourselves about it.


*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.


  1. Edelman Intellignece, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017. https://www.slideshare.net/upwork/freelancing-in-america-2017/1
  2. Freelancers Union and UpWork, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017. https://s3.amazonaws.com/fuwt-prod-storage/content/FreelancingInAmericaReport-2017.pdf
  3. Sara Horowitz, Freelancing in America 2017, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/10/17/freelancing-in-america-2017/

 

What is Coworking? It Can Be Rural

Coworking is generally associated with urban or suburban settings, serving dense populations of independent workers and start ups.

What about rural areas, with much lower population densities, and correspondingly sparser social networks?

It is certainly possible to do digital work anywhere, including out in the country. Many rural areas have technical infrastructure to support remote working, and talented workers. However, in there are fewer people overall, and therefore fewer workers. In addition, many workers migrate to commercial centers.

So, can coworking succeed in a rural area?


Tim Ford blogs about Cohoots Coworking in rural Australia. Cohoots is located in a small town in a rural area, so it has been a struggle to get enough members to pay the bills.

The facility itself is conventional; featuring desks, networking, and events. But they advertise that if you “scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some magic”. These “magical” features includes the memorable tag, “Members Who Want To Be Here”, i.e., a community of like-minded workers.

Ford is clear that the emphasis and the value added is community. Given the small population (and lack of competition), they have found little point in advertising ‘we have the best space’. Instead, they take what he calls an “inside out” approach. Community is not something that happens inside the coworking space, it connects out into the whole region.


I think this workspace is another example of how flexible and diverse coworking is. The physical and social setting is quite different from urban centers, but there is still entrepreneurship and community happening.

To my mind, this reflects the most important features of coworking. The space itself can be in the Bronx, Santa Clara, or Castlemaine, Victoria; and it can look and feel a lot of ways. What matters in every case is the presence of a thriving community; a group of people with shared interests meeting face-to-face, helping each other.

I’ll also note that this space almost certainly would not exist without the leadership cadre, who are all worked up about coworking and community. You can have the coolest office space in the world, but nothing will happen without community leaders.


Clearly, finances and low population are a challenge for any rural business, not just coworking. However, rural areas have some distinct advantages.

The cost of living is generally lower, and the lifestyle can be attractive. A small town already is a community and a regional center of social networking, so a coworking space fits naturally into the historic cultural patterns.

One of the best things about rural coworking is that it offers opportunities for people, especially young people, who want to stay home. Digital networks make it possible for kids to have a career without splitting for the city. Coworking, in turn, can be the social infrastructure that is a “respite from our isolation” (to quote Zachary Klaas [2]).

One thing that won’t work is a ginormous space like many operations are developing.  Think small and intimate, not large and generic.

But I’m sure that competent local leadership will understand this necessity well enough.


  1. Tim Ford, Rural Coworking – Our Journey, in Cohoots Blog. 2017. http://www.cohoots.info/rural-coworking-our-journey/
  2. Zachary R., Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

 

What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Seldon on Love and Freelancing

Sensei Tyra Seldon asks, “Can love be the guiding force of your business?” [1]

She had me at “love”.

When we think of passion, compassion, and even love, we may associate these words with romantic or familial relationships. Rarely do we link these terms to business.

The problem is, of course, that we “want to be profitable, but we also want compassion to be a cornerstone of what we do”. This almost always leads to choices, often tough choices.

Practically anybody can make money, but how you make your money and what you compromise to do it are equally as important.

Writing for the Freelancers Union Blog, she points out that this is particularly tough for independent workers, who may not have a business degree or classwork in business ethics for guidance. A gig worker who is learning as she goes has to “be careful because unethical business practices can be subtle.” As she says, a business opportunity, any business opportunity, may be “incongruent” with your own values.

The good news is that an independent worker can walk away. It’s not so easy to quit a job and walk away from a career when a large organization chooses a problematic business. But a freelancer can say “no, thanks” to any job.

The bad news is that not only could you starve to death trying to be ethical, but you are on your own. Working for a large organization is easy, because you can delegate ethics to others. A freelancer has no choice but to choose for himself.

I will say that I consider not having an MBA and training in “business ethics” to actually be beneficial. The very fact that business schools feel a need for a specific course in “ethics” tells you that the rest of the curriculum is not about ethics. As far as I can tell, business school is all about teaching people to ignore normal human ethics in favor of some kind of economic rationalism.

My own view is that there is no such thing as “business ethics”. There are only personal ethics. You have to know your own values, and make your business conform to you. This is not what they teach at business school.

As Sensei Seldon points out,  one of the real advantages of freelancing is that you can say things like:

  • I am in love with my company.
  • I am passionate about sharing my goods and services with the world.
  • I demonstrate compassion when interfacing with my clients.

(See other posts by Seldon on Freelancing here.)


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can love be the guiding force of your business?, in Frrelancers Union – Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/31/can-love-be-the-guiding-force-of-your-business-2/

A Map of the Gig Economy

Speaking of the Gig Economy….

The iLabour Project (“Investigating the Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet”) [3] has begun to try to track workers and work using online job and task services. This isn’t the whole of the Gig Economy, but it certainly is an important sector. Indeed, their data showed a 26% increase between 2015 and 2016—this is why we’re all interested in it!

What does that headline number mean? The data is amassed by retrieving “vacancies” from the most used online job markets. (This is done via a web crawl, so it is snapshots.) When possible, they record the type of work (‘occupation”) and the country where the worker resides. The gigs are “different market mechanisms and contracting styles, from online piecework to hourly freelancing.” [2].

One wonders if Uber and is included in this index? It’s not an open market, but it sure as heck is at the dark heart of the gig economy.

This index is an “indicator”, not an absolute measure. The year to year growth is a growth in…this index. Mainly, this means more “vacancies”, and presumably, more vacancies filled. Given the nature of these platfoms, that could mean more workers, or more work per worker, or both.

The iLabor project produced a supplement that describes the geographic location of the gig workers sampled, and the type of work.

Online Labour Index top occupation by country, 1-6 July 2017

The data confirms our expectations that India and Bangladesh are large sources of labor in these services, though US and UK also supply labor in certain specializations.

This index seems very limited to me. It has nothing to say about many vital aspects of this job market.

There is very little about the employers. There is nothing about outcome: productivity, satisfaction, value added.

As noted, there is little information about the number of workers, the hours per workers, and the income of workers. We are all concerned about the widespread trend toward very low wage piece work, that cannot support the workers.


The Oxford group makes their data available for others to use, which enabled Andrew Karpie to add his own analysis [1].  His analysis shows that “the U.S. and Canada account for over 50% of the global total projects requested”, with the overall finding that “it is clear that online work exchange activity today is largely between the U.S. and certain less-developed Asian countries.

Well duh!

He concludes that “this is likely true for three main reasons: (1) wage arbitrage (frequently), (2) lower transaction costs and (3) supply of skilled labor/talent (with shortages in the U.S.).”

No kidding?

This is not a pretty picture, and I’m always surprised by people who think this “innovation” is even remotely a good idea.

But it’s very good to see some actual data about the gig economy, even if it is limited in so many ways.


  1. Andrew Karpie, Where Are Online Workers Located? — Oxford Internet Institute Tool Breaks it Down, in Spend Matters Network. 2017. https://spendmatters.com/2017/07/13/online-workers-located-oxford-internet-institute-tool-breaks/
  2. Otto Kassi, How the Online Labour Index is constructed, Oxford International Institute, 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/how-the-online-labour-index-is-constructed/
  3. Oxford International Institute, Introducing the iLabour Project. 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/
  4. Kevin Stark, Oxford Internet Institute Launches Interactive Map of the Global Gig Economy. Sharable.July 27 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/oxford-internet-institute-launches-interactive-map-of-the-global-gig-economy

 

 

Freelancer’s Toolkits?

The members who are “managed” by cool coworking software are mainly freelancers and independent contractors. These workers rent their workplace, and bring their own tools. So what is in their tool box?


Michael Katz has some suggestions for what you should have [1] .

Actually, his list are pretty simple, and mostly about being organized, getting “more efficient we can get managing repeatable, often mundane aspects of our work”.

  • Directions to my office
  • Standardized cards (e.g., “Thank you for the referral”)
  • Service descriptions (i.e., what you do)
  • New client questionnaire
  • Newsletter sign-up form

I note that all of these things are non-digital though all of them can be implemented in digital forms. In fact, every one of these ideas predate the ubiquitous internet.  They are about good business practices and relationships, not about technology.


Jeriann Ireland offers another take on this question, suggesting “The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers[2].

  • A Ready-to-Go Resume Template (and use LinkedIn to get it out there
  • A Decent Phone Plan (with call waiting)
  • A Dedicated Work Space (and separate computers and accounts)

This is a good list, and definitely a sound foundation.

His discussion of the “dedicated” workspace captures the essential psychology “Whether it’s a home office, a shared office space, or even a corner in your home, have a place where you only store work-related paperwork and itemsNaturally, “a dedicated workspace” might be membership in a local coworking space.

(I did raise an eyebrow at the comment that this is “the same concept as not spending non-sleeping time in your bed.”  Hmm.  I should never do anything in bed except sleep?)


Anyway, together these articles make clear that much of the challenge of freelancing is to be well organized, and to have a clear understanding of your own work processes.

“Templates” seem to be an important thing.  Basically, a template represents your understanding of how you work, and, as Katz puts it, the mundane and repeatable aspects.

I think this is a good point. Furthermore, the templates these guys mention most prominently are the “scripts” used for finding gigs and making contracts. There are other repeatable processes, such as billing, but connecting with new clients needs to be personal—so you need customized conversations.  

All this sounds like work!

Worse, it sounds exactly like “looking for a job”—which it is.  Gig workers have to really, really good at job hunting because they have to do it all the time. 

(Yet another reason I’ll never be a good Freelancer:  I absolutely hate, hate, hate job hunting.)


1. Jeriann Ireland, The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/07/are-you-a-freelancer-or-entrepreneur-2/

2. Michael Katz,, What’s in your tool chest?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/13/whats-in-your-tool-chest-2/

Just How Complicated is Freelancing, anyway?

The new way of work is a gig economy of growing legions of freelancers and independent contractors. Far from having no job, these self-employed workers actually have to perform many jobs, implementing everything necessary to operate a small business.

As I have said, this stuff is not really my thing, and I will probably never be a successful gig worker.

If there was even the smallest shred of doubt about that conclusion, it was dispelled by Josh Hoffman’s two-part article, “82 rules for all freelancers to live by”.

Eighty two!

Anything with that many rules is w-a-a-y too complicated for my puny mind to handle!

Actually, his collection is more of a play list than an original essay. Most of these points appear elsewhere, which is clear because he links to the sources.


It’s a lifestyle

His list includes a variety of topics. Item 1 is probably the most important:

Freelancing isn’t a job or career. It’s a lifestyle choice.”

Heck, it’s a lifestyle just to learn his 82 rules. : – )

It’s not only a lifestyle, it’s a personal lifestyle. He offers a lot of new age-y advice.

Do it your way.

Keep trying,

If it makes you happy, do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t.”

Channel your inner epic.”

Embrace your weirdness ”


It’s a business

As he says, “Speaking of business, you are one”.

Most of his rules apply to any small business, not just freelancing.

Many of the  rules are about how to run a small business (which I’m pretty sure is a lifestyle choice no matter what business you choose). This includes a bunch of stuff about:

customer/client relations,

marketing,

branding.

Network, network, network.


The problem with having so many rules

…is that they start contradicting each other.

For instance, he is very confusing about selfishness.

He’s advises other-oriented attitudes, if not actual altruism.

You can’t do anything great alone.”

Always lead with an unconditional willingness and readiness to help.

Gratitude is instant medicine.

But then, it’s about you.

Be selfish. That’s what freelancing is all about. It’s about you,

If it makes you happy, do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t.

Channel your inner epic.

Embrace your weirdness ”

These attitudes seem contradictory to me.


And there are some real stinkers in here

Some of his items are weirdly obnoxious and assert values I simply can’t agree with.

He endorses a really racist analogy about, “are you a Cowboy or an Indian”. I wont’ dignify this with an explanation of his point. It’s just icky.

He has a very specific idea about what kind of business you are in.

Clients care about two things: how to make more money, and how to save more money. Everything else is noise. Eliminate the noise from your sales pitch.

Huh. That’s not the only things my clients worry about.

He endorses the notion that freelancers are rootless.

The world is your office. If you’re unhappy with where you are, move. You’re not a tree.”

Um. Don’t workers have a home, a family, to a community?


Overall, this list seems way, way to long for me, and not especially well organized.

However, it does really make the point that a freelancer has to run a business, and also has to self-motivate.

I think this is why there is the striking incongruity of his bloodthirsty “it’s about the money” and the touchy-feely “channel your own epic.”  A freelancer has to figure out how to do both–and get both work and life done, too.

I note in passing that one of the reasons why many freelancers like coworking is that the coworking community is people who face the same challenges, and they can face it together.

As I have said, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do it myself.


  1. Josh Hoffman , 82 rules for all freelancers to live by, Part 1, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/06/26/82-rules-for-all-freelancers-to-live-by-part-1/
  2. Josh Hoffman, 82 rules for all freelancers to live by, Part 2, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/06/27/82-rules-for-all-freelancers-to-live-by-part-2/

 

Jinks On the “Freelancing Mindset”

Bryan Jinks blogs this month that it is important for Freelancers to think like a freelancer, i.e., not like an ‘employee’.

Freelancing is not just like being an employee with more freedom. They are two completely different things, and need to be looked at from different perspectives.

For Freelancers who are used to being employees, or people who take up Freelancing, it is crucial to understand the difference, or else face a terrible economic disaster (by dramatically undercharging).

He highlights two basic things to keep in mind. First, your charges (e.g., your hourly rate) must include all the overheads that are not mentioned in the salary or scale of an employee: taxes, benefits, business expenses, etc. A Freelance worker must pay these him or herself out of their billed rate, so the rate must be a lot higher than an employee’s rate for the same job.

The second issue is the importance of accounting for what may be sporadic gigs, and the overhead of finding gigs. A Freelancer must factor the work needed to set up the gig into the hourly charges for the work time.

The bottom line is that Freelance work is a business, and needs to be run like a business.

If you can forget the employee mindset and view your income like a business owner, you’ll have a more realistic view of your finances.

I note that part of the value of the Freelancers Union  is that it provides not only advice on this topic, but also resources to help Freelancers tackle all this business goop. This now includes resources such as a tool for creating contracts and an app to find legal help.

Enspiral is also creating open tools for project management and other business support, as is Loomio, These tools and services make it possible for a worker to get all the stuff you get from  being part of a large company, except everything is peer-to-peer.

(There are zillions of commercial services that do the same things as well.)

I have to say that this biz stuff is a big reason why I probably never will be a successful freelancer. I just don’t think like a business owner, and frankly, I don’t want to think that way.

I suspect that the only way I would make it at all would be with the kind of help that the FU and the others are creating.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks like this, and in any case, no one is expert at everything. So these efforts are surely the right idea. As I said in an earlier post, this is putting “tools in the hands of the workers” in the 21st century.


  1. Bryan Jinks, Why freelancers can’t approach money with an “employee” mindset, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/05/31/why-freelancers-cant-approach-money-with-an-employee-mindset/