Tag Archives: Sara Horowitz

A New Safety Net for the New Way of Work

The New Way of Work is a jobless economy, inhabited by independent workers, living from gig to gig.  The security of a full time job is becoming a luxury item, along with the social safety net that was built around employment.

Freelancers are on their own, it seems.

Well then, there is nothing to do other than do it ourselves.  Si, Su Puede!

One response to this disaster opportunity is the Freelancers Union,  “Building a better future for independent workers”. **

To date, the number one priority of the FU has been to *get freaking paid for work done*, AKA, “#FreelanceIsntFree.

A close second must surely be access to health insurance and other safety nets.  This is a mountain we have to climb, but it isn’t easy.

we need a safety net and now is the time to do something about it.

The FU has been offering portable insurance and savings plans for several years, though much of that was only available to residents of New York City.  Obviously, that’s not even close to what we need.

This month Sara Horowitz, the retired founder of the FU, has announced a new initiative, tagged Trupo, “Let’s build a new safety net”.  This is, she says,  “Future of Work 2.0: Building the Next Safety Net”. [2]  (Sigh—I’m already out of date, still worrying about the Future of Work, V1.0 : – ))

The idea is simple: this is basic disability insurance, designed for (and by) independent workers.  The implementation is said to be inspired by contemporary digital technology, including GoFundMe campaigns.

The Trupo effort is partly owned by the FU, in partnership with venture capital.  The underlying theory is that independent workers banding together can create their own safety net.

I hope so.

While I am seriously skeptical of “an insurtech startup building new infrastructure for the mobile workforce”  (in this case, literally “portable” benefits), I am somewhat reassured by the involvement of the FU.  This isn’t quite worker owned, but the FU is clearly on our side and not out to rake off huge profits from workers.  (But I hope they have real actuaries involved, and don’t rely on the FU’s shaky statistics.)

Fingers crossed, we can make this happen.


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


  1. Sara Horowitz, Future of Work 2.0: Building the Next Safety Net, in Medium – @sara horowitz. 2018. https://medium.com/@sara_horowitz/future-of-work-2-0-building-the-next-safety-net-7fdae89904a1
  2. Sara Horowitz, A new solution for episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/07/31/bad-things-do-happen-to-good-people-but-the-good-people-still-outnumber-the-bad-things/

 

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/

 

Survey Report: “Freelancing in America: 2015”

Every year the Freelancers Union conducts a survey of Freelancers. This years report “Freelancing in America 2015 Report” was released earlier this month. The report is based on a survey of over 7,000 by Edelman Berland (methods described here).

The main conclusion is that “Freelancing is becoming a more prevalent, viable option for workers, a trend that spans across borders, industries and occupations.

The survey reports that 54 million Americans performed Freelance work in the last year, something like 34% of all workers. 75% of these workers Freelance by choice (younger and older workers are more likely to choose to freelance), and most earn as much or more than earlier conventional jobs.

The survey identifies several (self identified?) categories of “freelancers”:

  • Independent Contractors (36%)
  • Moonlighters (25%) (in addition to “regular” employment)
  • Diversified workers (26%) (who “partly” freelance)
  • Temporary Workers (9%)
  • Freelance Business Owners (5%) (?!)

The “diversified” workers includes participants in the “sharing” economy, a laUber. This category grew the most.

The survey indicates that Freelancing definitely seems to be enabled by digital technology, which enables people to work easily from anywhere. Importantly, digital technology also plays a key role in finding gigs, too. In other words, this socioeconomic phenomenon is heavily dependent on ubiquitous networked digital technology.

This report is clearly “spun” to emphasize the positive. The reported number of “freelancers” is surprisingly high, until you realize that the survey counts anyone who “engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work, within the past 12 months” as a freelancer. If you did any work that you consider “freelancing”—including moonlighting and “freelance business owner”—you count as a freelancer. True, all these workers do share many similar concerns, but there is a big difference between trying to make a living as an independent contractor 100% and, say, moonlighting a few hours a week.

The report about (self-reported) earnings is also surprising, especially considering the proportions of part time and temporary workers in the population. We don’t really know what is included in those figures (e.g., how are benefits and overheads accounted?), or whether freelancers are earning a lot or perhaps abandoning low paying jobs in favor of better, but still low paying freelancing.  Or, we may hope, perhaps many workers are seeing better earnings.

This upbeat report mentions but does not dwell on the challenges of freelance workers, which are similar to those faced by all workers (health care, pensions), as well as insecurity about unpredictable future income and slow payment by clients. While gig-to-gig freelancing is obviously insecure, “permanent” employees probably face similar insecurity.

Of course, the Freelancers Union itself is a direct response to these insecurities: the FU is a twenty first century redesign of the twentieth century industrial union, to serve exactly this new population of freelancers.

Along these lines, the report argues that “We have entered a new era. … Instead of working 9-to-5, more are working project-to-project and gig-to-gig.”  This is important, they say, “…more than an economic change. It’s a cultural and social change on par with the Industrial Revolution.” (p. 5)

[T]his shift to a more independent workforce have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power. (p. 5)

I can’t rally disagree, though this particular report is less than compelling.

Examining the data closely, we could come up with a much smaller number of freelancers by excluding part timers, or by considering “full time equivalents”, or something. We also would want to compare the reported satisfaction and earnings with other workers doing similar work. And most important, we would be concerned about the long term results of gig-to-gig working—which will not show up in any one year survey.

Don’t get me wrong: this is important stuff, and I’m totally on the side of the FU. It is a really good idea, and absolutely needed.  I’m a member myself, even though I have not done any paid freelancing in the last year.  Stronger together!

But this particular survey is a bit of a political fluff piece, and must be taken with a grain of salt.


 

  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2015. Freelancers Unioin and Upwork, New York, 2015. https://fu-web-storage-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/content/filer_public/59/e7/59e70be1-5730-4db8-919f-1d9b5024f939/survey_2015.pdf

Books On How To Organize Society

A couple of “radical” books on “the future” of work and society. These are better than average, talking about earnest, practical, community oriented “movements”, based in sound understanding of humans, and employing the digital tools of the early twenty first century. Quite interesting, and challenging. See also my earlier remarks about “Getting a Grip 2” by Frances Moore Lappé.

The Freelancer’s Bible by Sara Horowitz

 In this digitally enabled brave new world, everyone is interested in “The New Way We Work”. My own motto is, if you care about “work” you need to care about “workers”—how do we make a decent life when there are no permanent jobs?

A vigorous and positive approach to this question can be seen in Sara Horowitz’s book, and the Freelancer’s Union she heads. If we’re left to our own devices, then by gum let’s build ‘em our own darn way.

If we are going to build a good system based on “freelancing”, there are many things that need to be tackled: working conditions, benefits, contracts, accounting, and so on are now the responsibility of the worker, in addition to actually knowing how to produce stuff.

Horowitz is well aware of these challenges, and presents a positive and optimistic attitude, along with models for success. She promulgates the life of a freelancer, along with a view of a “new mutualism”.

One of the biggest implications of the permanent temp-hood economy is the loss of the personal identity that used to accrue to having a career. My employment in the software industry was not just a job, it validated my own identity as a valuable participant in a world changing program.

Horowitz is well aware of this, too, so much of her writing is about personal goals and identity. Indeed, the Freelancer’s Union is as much about self-identity as mutual help (not that these are mutually exclusive).

What I find in this book is some “self help”, some practical business advice, the ghost of old line trade union mutualism, and a big dollop of digital new agey vibe. Where my grandfather’s union meeting might feature a pledge of allegiance and group singing of repurposed hymns, this union is mostly digital, and features social media, meet ups, self-improvement and positive psychology.

John L. Lewis crossed with Oprah.  Don’t mess with us!

This is particularly clear in the sections about “The New Mutualism” which is also expounded upon in the Freelancers Union web pages.  This idea  goes far beyond “success” in your own business, or a general professional organization.The broader socio-politco-cultural vision calls for voluntary collaboration, sharing, gift giving, and what she calls the “love bank account”.

Fundamentally, this is about creating and sustaining community, “working together for problem solving and profit” (p.300). Teach. Mentor. Do good works. Barter (exchange gifts). Form groups. Co-work. Join the Union. . (As she jokes, “The Union Makes Us…Not So Weak.”)

If nothing else, this stuff is sound social psychology: whatever you are doing, you are going to be happier if you feel connected to other people, and give to others. Odds are, you will profit, too, but that’s not the reason to do it.

At the same time, she has a lot to say about balancing work and other demands, and about having time to have fun, too. In fact, everyone could benefit from some of the advice in this line, freelancers or not.

I can’t say if this is only or best way to go, or who it may suit best, but it seems to be working at least for some. I’m certainly watching carefully to see how this whole trend unfolds over time. I’m not only watching, but I’m a member. (Double disclosure: I’m a member of the Freelancer’s Union, and I’m also trying to study the “future of work”.)

At the moment, I don’t quite fit into the Freelancer mold as generally told. I’m not young, I’m not “a creative”. My economic circumstances are far different from typical Freelancers.

And, being an old fart, I worry about the long-term sustainability of this approach. Freelancing can be exciting, but, just as in the perpetual grind for grant money in academia, what happens after a few years? And in the “sharing” economy, who will buy houses, cars, and so on—to employ workers in these key sectors. How can people raise a family without at least one stable career?

But we all have a stake in this working out. At a personal level, I feel a tremendous personal stake in the success of this generation here in my local community. I also feel a deep personal responsibility to help work out the social messes created by the technologies I helped create.

I would like to see the FU and the kinds of “new mutualism” Horowitz talks about succeed, or fail elegantly, or morph into something better.

 

The Talking Point by Thomas R. Flanagan and Alexander N. Christakis

This is an interesting book, if a bit off the main path. They are interested in problem solving, specifically, via group dialog. Specifically, they are interested in democratic, but large scale, working together to tackle big, often “wicked” problems. (Personally, I’m at least as worried about everyday non-wicked problems, such as sustaining crucial public services.) This book documents the methodology used by their global “Institute for 21st Century Agoras”, which is “dedicated to cultivating authentic democracy through effective social systems design”.

There are plenty of challenges, but they focus on the interesting and hard problem of understanding each other. This often boils down to figuring out a common understanding of key concepts and the words we use to talk about them. Without this, no real dialog is possible, and the authors argue that merely by achieving a common framework, people are happier, have more confidence, and generally get better results, just because the group understands each other.

This book is about a process they call “Structured Dialogic Design”, and it is based on cognitive psychological theories with a certain amount of empirical support. I.e., it’s not prima facia stupid or crazy. Much of the theory is decades old, and much of the practice is based on considerable experience—not in any way a sudden bolt from the blue.

Part of what makes this interesting is that the procedures are quite amenable to digitization. In fact, digital tools make some steps much more feasible. For example, walking through a series of small “decisions” (e.g., about meanings of terms, or order of lists), and constructing a relational graph are quite laborious, but could be helped a lot with a good digital tool. Software also can help visualize networks and other complex data structures, quickly and flexibly.

This stuff is also interesting because it is all about developing “collective wisdom”, which many people imagine can be done with fairly trivial digital systems, e.g., mindless “mechanical turk” programs, or shared wikis. This book serves as a bright warning light that there is a lot more to successful collaboration than voting. Whether they are right about everything, or whether you disagree with the approach, it would be wise to consider what they are saying if you want to create effective “collaborative” software or get wisdom rather than bullying from the Internet crowd.

This method assumes that the participants actually want to search for consensus (which is certainly not always the case), but is designed to not require huge buy in at the beginning, so participants can ease in and decide for themselves if the process is valid in each case.

The ideas are quite interesting, and the authors are super, super earnest about authentic democratic decision making. In the end, this means a lot of care to make the process completely fair and honest—not driven by the “leadership” or sponsor’s ideas. Very “occupy-ish”.

It is sad and agonizing to look at their “Obamavision” effort. A wonderful open, “bottoms up” exercise as Barak Obama entered the presidency in 2009.  But neither world events nor the political opposition (nor his own party nor his own administration) was playing by these rules, so this vision was stillborn.

I found the language stilted and hard to read, a surprising flaw in a book about communication!

Worst of all, the software is not readily available for inspection, and there is no public documentation of what it does or how it works. This is inexplicable to me: how could they not want me to understand and potentially contribute to their software? I’m assuming this is a matter of lack of expertise—they are not really software folks. But still, some of their users surely know how to set up an open source project. Very disappointing to me, and it makes me wonder how “real” the software part is.


 

  1. Horowitz, Sara, The Freelancer’s Bible, New York, Workman Publishing, 2012.
  2. Thomas R. Flanagan, Alexander N. Christakis, The Talking Point: Creating an Environment for Exploring Complex Meaning, Charlotte, Information Age Publishing, 2010.

 

More From the “Business” Section

As I noted in an earlier post, the business shelves are a strange and interesting part of the bookstore.  Amid the numerous books about investing, “leadership”, and famous tycoons (convicted, indicted, and still at large), there is also a lot of stuff about IT, creativity, and “the future of work”, among other topics of interest to me.

Here’s some recent pickings. [Read more]

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution by Fred Vogelstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan (Penguin, 2013)

Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pamela Slim (Penguin, 2013)

“New Mutualism” by Sara Horowitz

[Read the full post]

Horowitz on Freelancers Pyramid

From the Freelancer’s Union, an interesting piece by Sara Horowitz, titled “THE FREELANCERS PYRAMID OF SELF-ACTUALIZATION”. Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union are probably one prominent represenation of “the future of work”, so I think this is worth a careful look.

She explicitly refers to Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” (1943), one of the most influential psychological theories of the 20th century.

In this case, she’s unpacking the definition of “success” for today’s freelancers.  This is a valuable idea, especially since there is a lot of blither-blather these days about how cool it is to be self-employed–though it looks pretty darn scary and difficult to me.

Her basic approach is to look at a sequence of “levels” in a freelance career, which unfold as the person works and learns, and which provide deeper and better rewards.  Importantly, she gives advice for how to move “up” the pyramid.

This is an interesting piece, and has a lot of honesty about it.

The lower levels of the pyramid (“Unfree Freelancer”, “Hustling Freelancer”) are absolutely horrible, with no security, and certainly no pleasure. As she says “This still isn’t a real job….

Why would anyone want to do this?  The only reasonable answers are, “I have no other chioce” or “I want to get to a higher level”.

If you hustle enough, and your luck holds, you may pull together a solid collection of gigs, regular income, and, ta-daa, health insurance. She calls this “Empowered Freelancer”, though it is, of course, what we used to call “the first day of work”, back when there were “jobs”.

At this point you can actually have a family, and participate in the community, and have a certain confidence that you aren’t going to be wiped out at any second.

From here, you may grow more confident in your own skills, develop extensive networks, and gain the esteem of your colleagues and clients. This is “the influential freelancer”, and you are proud to be a successful independent.  Things are starting to feel good–finally.

As in Maslow’s hierarchy, at the highest stage we depart the Eartly plane, achieving “360”, essential “New Mutialism”.  Changing from “I” to “We”.

Many people, including myself, have experienced the first couple of levels, and a few have achieved the mid-levels.That means that most of the freelancers I’ve met are not really “free”, but mostly just struggling and hustling to eke out a survival. Not cool at all.

I can’t really say anything about the final two levels, because I don’t think I’ve met anyone there.  They probably live in California.

I kind of like this piece, because it has a pretty steely-eyed look at what “success” (and pure survival) might mean, and recognizes a lot of different ways you can go.  The advice about how to move “up” looks OK to me, but I can’t judge from personal experience.

The final stage is a bit new-agey for me, I’ve always been shooting for a home, family, and community; not personal glory or actualization. My personal identity and worth has never, ever been defined by my work (not that I haven’t had some achievements and colleagues that I”m proud of.)

I think Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union are talking about one important face of “the future of work”, and I take their advice with respect. I’s like to encourage academics to investigate these concepts, and the social psychology of this way of work.

(Personal note: this whole approach terrifies me–a shy person like me would quickly starve to death at the “unfree” level.)