Category Archives: “New Way of Work”

Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.


In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.


I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?


  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrends-2018-liz-elam/
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/12/digging-deeper-into-the-coworking-megatrends-of-2018-a-qa-with-liz-elam/
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018. https://catjohnson.co/evolution-shared-workspace-industry/

 

What is Coworking?

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

“The New Way of Work” in 2017

I continue to observe the development of the Gig Economy and related aspects of the “new way of work”.


Freelancing and the Freelancers Union

I am a member of the Freelancers Union (though I earn no income from freelancing), and continue to follow developments.  I strongly support the goals of the FU, though there is little visible impact out here in the boonies.

Their blog and other materials provide an interesting window on the life and challenges of Freelancers.

However, I have criticized their annual reports, which make dubious claims about the number of Freelancers now and project in the future.


Platform Cooperatives (with or without blockchains)

I continue to follow the development of “Platform Cooperativism”  New implementations continue to emerge, with and without blockchains.

While some enthusiasts are excited about ‘replacing Uber’ et al with blockchain-based decentralized markets, most of the hard work is in the user interface, community relations, and above all, the legal and organizational challenges.

I have observed several times that blockchain per se doesn’t really help solve most of the key challenges of creating a local cooperative. In fact, a “trustless” decentralized, digital organization is antithetical to the development of a face-to-face, locally run, community organization.  Using a blaockchain may be cheap and easy, but it isn’t especially conducive to creating personal trust.


What is Coworking?

I continue to blog about coworking, exploring the question “What is Coworking?”

As I have said, coworking is where the gig economy happens.

This year, I was particularly interest in some of the less developed flavors of coworking, including Kidful Coworking, coworking in rural areas, and the growing diversity of coworkers.

(Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Reals Soon Now early in 2018.)


I expect all of these topics will continue to be interesting in 2018.

 

What is Coworking?

Tyra Seldon on “co-working with virtual strangers”

Sensei Tyra Seldon muses this month on “co-working with virtual strangers”.

These days terminology about work is confused and ambiguous, and it turns out that she is not specifically talking about “coworking” in the sense of physically sharing a coworking space.  And “virtual strangers” is not the metaphorical “as good as” strangers, but rather strangers known only through digital communications.

In short, she is describing digitally enabled distributed work groups. And her point is that freelancers not only can but should work in such teams.

we become members of shared virtual workspaces without leaving our homes or offices.”

Seldon sketches the plethora of software that makes these collaborations possible.

(Aside:  you youngsters have no idea how lucky you are. In my day, we built all this stuff from scratch – making it up as we went along, and with only 1% of the storage and bandwidth you have on your tablet.  Kid’s today have it easy. : – ))

Sensei Seldon advises that there are benefits, including “skills gained, resources generated, and relationships established”. She hints at the risks to be watched, such as contracts and payments.  The important thing to note is that these are really no different than the risks and benefits of any collaboration.

working with virtual strangers is going to be a significant part of the future of freelancing and gig economy jobs.

Seldon is correct, though I would say she understates the case by far.

First of all, the gig economy is pretty much designed with virtual teams in mind. Freelancing today is, almost by definition, going to involve virtual teams. So, no news there.

Second, these technologies were developed in conventional organizations which have geographically dispersed teams. There is a vast academic literature about the benefits and limitations of these work practices. My own summary would be that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is extremely cost effective so it is here to stay.

Third, I’ll point out that the contemporary Coworking Movement is a response and antidote to the isolation of working “without leaving our homes or offices”.  In a coworking space workers will find a face-to-face community of collaborators.  There the teams will use the digital tools as Seldon describes, but will also be able to talk in person and generally be less “strangers” to each other.  For many workers, this is the best part of working in a coworking space.

I would say that coworking spaces were developed to try to get the benefits of digital collaboration while mitigating the perils of isolation and distrust of virtual strangers. It’s a lot easier to establish trust and mutual respect face-to-face.

In short, Coworking spaces are designed to be where freelance workers collaborate.

I’ll note that the coworking movement has elaborated the perceived benefits of these collaborations far beyond Seldon’s own testimony, including enhanced happiness, productivity, and serendipity.  See perhaps [1-3].

So, I would agree with Sensei Seldon, though I honestly don’t think Freelancers have the option to not work in virtual groups. And I would strongly encourage freelancers to explore local coworking spaces (don’t stop at the first one, find one that fits), which may well be even more beneficial.


  1. Lori  Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=ybFCrgEACAAJ
  2. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  3. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf
  4. Tyra Seldon, Can co-working with virtual strangers enhance your freelancing business?, in Freelancers Union. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/11/30/can-co-working-with-virtual-strangers-enhance-your-freelancing-business/

 

 

What is Coworking

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

What is Coworking? It’s More Diverse Than You Might Think

It is frequently observed that Coworking Spaces, like the Tech Industry, seems pretty, well, undiverse.

For example, Lori Kane commented, [4]

it hit me immediately: almost everyone in the space was young and white” (and mostly male). This was “not at all what the walk through the diverse neighborhood primed me to expect.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by many people.

At the same time, coworkers frequently perceive their own workplace to be diverse, and, indeed, the diversity of fellow workers is seen to be one of the principle benefits of a coworking space (e.g., [5, 8, 9]).

What is going on here?


For one thing, there are many different ways to be “diverse”. Kane notices the visible demographics of the space, especially compared to the city around it. Others are more focused on the range professional and technical skills in the room.

A second caveat is that any given coworking space has only so many workers, and generally draws a group “like-minded” workers. But there are many coworking spaces, with different membership, and no single workplace represents all coworking spaces or coworkers.

Atypical Entrepreneurs”

Sean Captain wrote last year in Fast Company about “A Growing Movement Of Coworking Spaces For Atypical Entrepreneurs” [1].  He writes about the emergence of “work spaces with public-service missions”. These operations may be not-for-profit, or for-profit B-corps, and may have a variety of members. The common theme is serving a social mission rather than pure profit.

Captain views this as a “new” trend, but coworking has had this strain of social mission from the beginning (e.g., the Centre for Social Innovation [9], Make Shift Boston [6], or EnSpiral Space [3]). But he does find that this concept is holding its own amid “mainstream, big-city coworking spaces like those in the WeWork empire” and their clones.

Besides a social mission, these spaces are also emphatically local.

Captain quotes Robbie Brown of WELabs [12] (located in Long Beach), “we’re drawing in membership from the community here rather than so much attracting outside folks into the area,” As Kane suggested, the local group is ”less threatening than walking into a coworking space and seeing a bunch of white guys in dress shirts, their faces in computers and typing away.

Captain mentions similarly local work spaces in Raleigh, NC,  Detroit, and other cities.

Again, the emphasis on serving a local community has been a key to coworking from the beginning. Indeed, the gigantic, one-size-fits all WeWork-Seats2Meet-NextSpace style of “consumer coworking” is a recent development. In the beginning, all coworking was “authentic”, local coworking, and there are plenty of locally oriented (but not necessarily social mission oriented) work spaces, such as The Harlem Collective [10], The Shift [11], Nebula [7], or CoHoots [2]).


In addition to demographic diversity (or perhaps, demographic locality), these small, low profit operations generally attract a variety of “non-traditional” businesses. He notes a variety of occupations and businesses, including healthcare, small manufacturing, and community development projects.

Again, these businesses aren’t as new and ground-breaking as Captain seems to believe–there have been similar community development projects for a century or more in most places. But, again, in recent years the big chains and business schools have promulgated a picture of what entrepreneurs are like, and what they do.


Captain does raise the interesting point that the leadership of these social mission spaces isn’t itself particularly diverse. This is embarrassing, smacking of cultural colonization, but also a matter of access to funding and know-how. Obviously, the next wave of “authentic local coworking” must be locally run and led.


My own view is that coworking has never been as homogeneous or, indeed, “corporate” as the business school version.

More important, coworking is all about community, and about the community feeling of comfortable solidarity and mutual support. Large scale operations may offer consistent, low cost services, but no one community “vibe” will please everyone.

If coworking is to persist and grow, it will need to recruit more and more diverse workers. This will require creating and sustaining communities that attract and nurture new workers, including people who do not aim to “move fast and break things”. (“Move steadily forward and fix things together”?)

For this reason, I view the future of coworking as a patchwork of many spaces, each locally led and connected to it’s location. Authentic, home style, workspaces?

“Even more diverse.”


  1. Sean Captain, Inside A Growing Movement Of Coworking Spaces For Atypical Entrepreneurs, in FastCompany – Leadership. 2016. https://www.fastcompany.com/3059990/inside-a-growing-movement-of-co-working-spaces-for-atypical-entrepreneurs
  2. CoHoots. CoHoots Coworking. 2017, http://www.cohoots.info/.
  3. Enspiral. Enspiral Space. 2015, http://www.enspiralspace.co.nz/.
  4. Kane, Lori, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=ybFCrgEACAAJ
  5. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  6. Make Shift Boston. Make Shift Boston. 2016, http://makeshiftboston.org/space.
  7. Nebula. Nebula Coworking St. Louis. 2017, https://nebulastl.com/.
  8. Olma, Sebastian, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf
  9. The Centre for Social Innovation. Culture | The Centre for Social Innovation. 2016, https://socialinnovation.org/culture/.
  10. The Harlem Collective. The Harlem Collective. 2017, http://www.theharlemcollective.co/.
  11. The Shift. The Shift – Home. 2017, http://www.theshiftchicago.com/.
  12. Work Evolution Labs. Work Evolution Labs,. 2017, http://www.workevolution.co/.

 

What is Coworking?

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

Crowd Sourced Research Projects

There are many “citizen science” initiatives, and many of them are variations on crowd sourcing. One prominent example, Zooniverse, is a veritable cottage industry creating one crowd sourced project after another. These projects employ ordinary people, AKA “citizens”, in real scientific research.

These collaborations can be very effective, magnifying the efforts of our few remaining professional scientists and research dollars. Unfortunately, in most cases, the civilians are employed in routine, low skill roles. In the case of Zooniverse, the projects are almost exclusively visual (or aural) recognition tasks, asking people to look for significant objects in visual (or sound) data. These internet volunteers occupy the ecological niche that we used to pay students to fill, back when we had money for scientific research.

Is it possible to have more people participate in science in more interesting ways?


In the last couple of years, a Stanford-Santa Cruz project has deployed digital collaboration tools to create “Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories,” [1] The idea is to involve volunteers from around the globe in the full array of research activities, including decision making, problem solving, and professional publishing.

Most important of all, the projects were not reduced to “Mechanical Turk” microtasks, but functioned more like actual science labs. The projects were organized akin to conventional university research, directed by a professional Principle Investigator, with institutional techincal support. The participants were recruited through open calls, and invited to study, investigate, propose, and critique the research problems.

The Crowd Research project uses techniques and tools familiar from virtual organizations and collaborative on-line work. Each project developed milestones, which were reviewed in periodic (weekly) meetings. These tasks might involve many familiar research activities, including reading papers, interviewing informants, generating ideas, or prototyping.

The large number of responses are peer evaluated to select a handful to discuss in the video conference. This process is essentially the same as reddit-style upvoting. It is interesting that “randomized a double-blind assignment, anonymous feedback was needlessly negative and evaluative” ([1], p. 834), so they use completely public reviews.

A small group of participants connects to the live video discussion, others can participate through digital comments and anyone can view the archived meeting. The weekly meeting discusses the top submissions, and decides what to do next. The PI may assign reading or other training activities. In some cases, an individual may be designated to lead execution of a particular milestone, e.g., when multiple efforts need to be coordinated.

I note that participating in the video conference is a “prize” for submitting a high rated response to the milestone. This converts the mandatory, “oh, no, not another meeting” situation, into a sought-after opportunity to meet the PI and top colleagues. I.e., this is an improvement over many collaborations, virtual or physical.

The project results are written up to meet profession style and standards. The contributions of individuals are visible in the digital collaborations, so the paper can assign credit as due. This is a significant opportunity for the participants to achieve visible academic credentials that usually are only garnered by students at elite schools.

The Crowd Research project created a decentralized system to assign credit to the contributions of each person. This helps the PI write letters of recommendation, even when the research group is too large and distributed to know every individual.

The Crowd Research Initiative has evaluated these techniques in a metastudy [1]. The digital infrastructure makes it possible to not only track participation, but also who did what. They document that most of the final ideas originated from “the crowd”, and most of the writing also was done by the crowd. It is important to note that this is about the same as a university lab, except the participants are not limited to selected enrolled students.

While there was little formal screening of participants, there was high attrition that filtered out the majority of initial sign ups. Many were not able to commit enough time due to other commitments, though there are also indications that some lost interest in the work as it developed.

The researchers document the relatively democratic spread of access and benefit from the experience. With publications and letters from PIs, many students gained admission to programs of study that they otherwise would not have.

The reputation system was correlated with the assignment of authorship and acknowledgement on the publications. Their algorithm (similar to PageRank) tended to reflect concrete contributions (such as checkins), though it was still possible to game the system to increase personal credit.

In their recent paper, they draw conclusions about “How to run a bad Crowd Research project” ([1], p. 838). They note the need to expect drop outs and conflict, and suggest that the project be carefully selected to match the strengths of the format. Also, as noted, they don’t recommend a competitive vibe.


This is an interesting and somewhat heroic project, harking back to the good old days when university researchers were generously supported and could tackle ambitious projects involving dozens of students.

One very important point to emphasize is that these projects were much more like “regular research”, and absolutely not the usual trivial crowd sourcing tasks. I would also say that they strongly resemble many software projects, and also collaborative non-profit projects (e.g., organizing a community workshop). I think this is not a coincidence, in that these virtual collaborations are similar social groups. As such, the lessons of Crowd Research probably should apply well to other digitally enhanced collaborations.

There are a couple of important caveats about this approach.

First, as they intimate in their anti-patterns, not every research topic or project is a good match to crowd research (or digital collaboration). A good project should “leverage scale and diversity to achieve more ambitious goals” (p. 838) I would also say that the project needs to have primarily digital deliverables. Obviously, it would be difficult to coordinate and share a single physical prototype or materials, with any digital technology.

Second, the high satisfaction of the participants, professional and non-professional, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, the participants were self-selected at the beginning, and through attrition. Crowd Research is well designed to create a sense of commitment and ownership in the project, at least in those who persist. However, it isn’t possible to extrapolate these results to people in general.

Even in these experiments, more than half of the initial recruits dropped out. Whatever the reason for leaving (generally, lack of time), these drop outs did not benefit and could not have a very high satisfaction with the experience. This was a great experience for a tiny, select group of people. The successful participants were highly motivated, and had skill and interest matches. This is a natural feature of collaborative research, and crowd technology neither can or should change that.

A third point to consider is that these young (mostly undergraduate students) were surely digital natives, quite used to social media and communication media such as reddit and reputation systems. This study showed that these technologies can be used effectively, at least for a self-selected group who are proficient and comfortable with these digital interactions.

It isn’t clear how universal this sort of digital literacy may be, or whether there are different styles. The study had to deal with cultural and personal conflict, but it could only deal with them within the digital arena. People who could not or would not play the game were simple not in the sample.

Obviously, technical and language limitations could preclude effective participation. In addition, people with limited vision or motor skills would be at a disadvantage. And, of course, people who lack confidence or are just shy will be hard to get.

These challenges are important issues for all digital life and digital work. Indeed, at its best, Crowd Research is a great approach, because the PI and RAs offer positive and encouraging leadership. My own view is that the attention and leadership of the PI probably spells the difference between the successful CR project and the hundreds of failed digital collaborations. In this, CR is recreating one of the ways that university education succeeds through mentoring and exposure to professional role models.


  1. Rajan Vaish, Snehalkumar S. Gaikwad, Geza Kovacs, Andreas Veit, Ranjay Krishna, Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Camelia Simoiu, Michael Wilber, Serge Belongie, Sharad Goel, James Davis, and Michael S. Bernstein, Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories, in Proceedings of the 30th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. 2017, ACM: Québec City, QC, Canada. p. 829-843. http://hci.stanford.edu/publications/2017/crowdresearch/crowd-research-uist2017.pdf

 

What is Coworking? It Can Be A Cutthroat Business

In the last couple of years, a number of coworking operations have developed into large chains, offering consistent service in cities around the world. The biggest of the bunch is probably WeWork, which has attracted headlines with million dollar infusions of capital and splashy openings.

WeWork talks about the sharing economy, and hires “community managers”, and so on, but it is definitely a for-profit operation.

What are they selling? Community.

this is a movement toward humanizing work

they are playing the Facebook game: selling customers to each other, raking off a profit from their donated time and attention.

But dropping 20 billion dollar valuation on these neo-hippies surely has an effect: WeWork appears to trying to monopolize the rental office business, with brutal tactics.

In recent months, there have been many reports of straightforward anticompetitive practices by WeWork, using their bankroll to drive out competitors.

Dateline London: “Coworking space Rainmaking Loft is shutting down in London after WeWork moved in above it

Dateline Brazil: “Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures: How Low Will WeWork Go?

Dateline: California: “Is WeWork Cannibalizing The Industry With The Classic Bait-And-Switch Tactic?

And so on. There is clearly a deliberate strategy here, though Amador’s question about desperation is a good one. Is this a move from strength or weakness?

Many of these tactics are probably illegal, though I’d be surprised if conservative controlled governments will act. Certainly, in a low margin business like this, competitors will be out of business long before any legal remedy could be found. The coworking industry is going to have to deal with it.

It is certainly the case that any coworking business should not try to compete directly with WeWork. WeWork are selling large scale sites, and a particular brand of coworking that emphasizes low costs and shiny spaces.   If you try to be a WeWork clone, you’ll be out of business—WeWork is cloning itself as fast as it can, and they will be better clones than you. Plus, they have insane amounts of money to burn in the effort.

However, I think it is obvious that there is plenty of room for coworking operations, but they need to aim at different marks than WeWork. I’d recommend going local, ideally with a core of local creative people on board. Be more interesting than WeWork, would be my advice. And that means have more interesting people, and do more interesting things. You can charge for that, and they can’t steal it.

WeWork may or may not get rich from their tactics. Given the low margins in this business, I have to wonder whether they really can wring enough income out of shot term rentals, even if they were to control 100% of the market. They certainly aren’t going to be able to raise rents astronomically, the customers can’t pay.

Personally, I think coworking is like the restaurant business. Sure, there can be huge chains, and then can offer consistent service and a low price. But there will also be local eateries, which thrive by offering something unique and interesting.

The food industry works this way because people have a range of tastes, and want a range of choices. Furthermore, there is no barrier to entering the game. If the only restaurant in town is McDonalds, it isn’t particularly difficult to open your own joint to compete. There are just too many “right ways” to serve food for a monopoly to cover them all.

My own guess is that WeWork will burn through a ton of money, kill off a lot of competing spaces, and create a lot of unhappy customers. Other operations will boot up, many of them advertising that “we are not like WeWork” or “Cwororking the way it was supposed to be”, or even, “we would never lie to you”. And WeWork could be out of business, possibly within a few years from now.

We shall see.


  1. Cecilia Amador, Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures: How Low Will WeWork Go?, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/09/desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures-how-low-will-wework-go/
  2. Cecilia Amador, Is WeWork Cannibalizing The Industry With The Classic Bait-And-Switch Tactic?, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/10/is-wework-cannibalizing-the-industry-with-the-classic-bait-and-switch-tactic/
  3. Sam Shead, Coworking space Rainmaking Loft is shutting down in London after WeWork moved in above it, in Business Insider – Tech Insider. 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/rainmaking-loft-is-shutting-down-in-london-because-of-wework-2017-10

 

 

What is Coworking?

 

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

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/