July 28, 2014

Two Ways of Looking at the Flexible Workforce

In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Connecticut modernist par excellence Wallace Stevens takes one simple creature — the titular blackbird — and explores it from thirteen different perspectives. Perhaps because I live in Hartford, where Stevens served as an insurance executive for most of his adult life, I decided to take a cue from him in considering the flexible workforce — a.k.a., the open talent economy, the new talent paradigm toward which it seems we are inexorably marching.

What I found, however, is that we don’t need to think about the flexible workforce in thirteen different ways — that could be fun, but I think it might muddle the most pressing question I have about the open talent economy: is it a good thing or a bad thing for the average american worker?

The First Way of Looking at the Flexible Workforce: It’s Great!

When I talked to Tim Fung about Airtasker, the Australian flexible work marketplace he co-founded with Jonathan Lui, he told me that there’s more “fluidity … in labor these days,” thanks to the Internet. People can use sites like LinkedIn to present their work histories, career objectives, endorsements, and references to employers, which effectively streamlines the old multi-step hiring process. This makes moving from job to job easier than ever before.

“Fifty years ago, to go and get a job was really complicated. There was no data available on people, so you would have to go in and meet people, do ten interviews, you probably had to know the boss’s son, and you got a job. It was very difficult to move around to other jobs, because of that lack of information … [Now] it’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, cool, I’ll look that guy up on LinkedIn, check out a couple of references … and then that transaction can happen.’”

Fung is unambiguously in favor of the growing flexibility of the workforce. “[It] will basically enable massive amounts of specialization, which is a really, really good thing. It means you can just focus on what you’re really, really good at,” he told me.

I can see where he’s coming from, and I agree: one of the benefits for workers in the open talent economy is that their increasing career mobility allows them to focus only on projects that they would like to work on. When you aren’t tied down to one position, you can hop around from project to project according to your preferences. I think, for example, about my past work as a freelance writer: when I hit the freelance marketplaces, I searched for projects that looked enjoyable. Writing creative copy for a pro-diversity executive coach? Sounds fun, let’s do it. Writing technical manuals for complicated factory machinery? No thanks, let’s find something else.

I could only be successful as a freelance writer under an open-talent-economy paradigm, in which companies hire talent on an as-needed basis. These companies didn’t have in-house writers for me to compete with — otherwise, there would be no freelance marketplaces in the first place.

Being a member of the flexible workforce also affords people scheduling freedom. No longer working the traditional 9-5 job, flexible workers can choose projects according to their own schedules. Again, from experience, I can tell you that planning vacations and running errands are much, much easier when you’re a flexible worker. You can plan your work around your life, instead of planning your life around your work.

In our conversation, Fung was especially excited about the specialization of labor that the open talent economy allows. Paradoxically, I find that the open talent economy allows both specialization and generalization. Sure, you can take the freelance writer route, only taking on projects that fall under the “writing” umbrella. At the same time, you also have the option of taking on projects in a variety of fields. Maybe you want to pick up some writing gigs, but you’re also interested in teaching engagements, or short-term activist work, or handyman projects, and you want to do it all while running an Etsy store on the side.

Now, I fully recognize that many people will be unhappy with me citing a Marxist feminist academic, but bear with me. Say what you will about Marxism or feminism, but I think scholar Eve Mitchell makes a good point: when we are forced to work one job all day, every day, we have to forsake other kinds of work that we might want to do as well. The person who wants to be a writer, teacher, activist, and handyman all at once? She has to choose only one of these things, at the exclusion of all others. Mitchell writes, “We are not fully enriched human beings, engaging in all forms of labor we wish to engage in, we are relegated into one form of labor in order to exchange to meet our needs. We are call center workers, hair stylists, nurses, teachers, etc.” In order to really fulfill ourselves, Mitchell argues, we need to be able to pursue all the forms of labor that we want to pursue. An open talent economy makes that possible.

(Note: I recognize the extreme irony of citing a Marxist in support of a capitalist economy — Mitchell would probably be very angry at me for this — but, one cannot deny the connection between with Mitchell wrote and what the flexible workforce could offer. Besides, as I explore the downsides of the open talent economy, it will become clear how Mitchell’s economic vision differs drastically from the one we’re considering here.)

The Second Way of Looking at the Flexible Workforce: It’s Awful!

So a flexible workforce offers workers a new kind of economic freedom: freedom from the single career, in pursuit of a variety of projects, types of labor, etc. But this freedom is not without significant downsides.

Under the traditional employment model — work for one or two or maybe three companies for the majority of your life — workers may have less freedom, but they also have more security. As a flexible worker, you’re negotiating wages every single time you start a new project. As a company employee, your wage is set at the beginning of your tenure. Sure, you’ll negotiate it a few more times throughout your life, but those negotiations will generally be for more money. As a flexible worker, a high-paying gig could be followed by a very, very low-paying one.

Wages are not only unstable in the flexible workforce. They’re also uncertain. It’s all well and good to talk about how easy job hopping is nowadays, but as more and more people hop jobs and join the flexible workforce, workers have more and more competition for each project. A worker who loses out on four or five projects in a row could suddenly find themselves unable to pay their bills.

Similarly, healthcare in the U.S. is still largely tied to employment. Sure, the ACA came around to change this, but it isn’t good enough: many low-wage workers still cannot afford healthcare, even with the ACA in place. It isn’t insane to think the same may be true of flexible workers, especially given the instability and uncertainty of their paychecks. One bad month may leave a worker unable to pay their ACA premium; a few bad months, and that worker loses their healthcare altogether.

Flexible workers also lose out on other benefits: paid sick time, maternity leave, and pensions, to name just a few.

The open talent economy may also open workers up to exploitation. As consultants and contractors, rather than full-time employees, flexible workers do not have the same legal protections. Employers can pick up and dump flexible workers at will and without warning, essentially sucking workers dry of their labor and then throwing them away when they no longer need them.

Could flexible workers unionize? Possibly, but how to organize workers who jump from field to field and job to job on a regular basis? Besides, the vehement anti-union feeling in the U.S. today makes unionizing even traditional workplaces difficult — one can only imagine how it would impact flexible workers.

Lastly, consider this: finding a job in the regular economy is hard enough; imagine trying to find multiple jobs every week or month or year.

The Verdict:

The anti-climax to all of this is that I don’t have a verdict. I see the good of the flexible workforce, and I see the bad. But which outweighs the other? Are there more net positives or more net negatives in the open talent economy?

This is a question I leave to you, the readers: what do you think? Are we headed in a good direction, or are we hurting American workers more than ever?

Read more in Workforce

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.