It’s been called the on-demand economy, the 1099 economy, the peer-to-peer economy, and freelance nation, but both the government and commerce sectors seem to be settling in on the term gig economy to describe the large-scale trends in employment that are defining the current generation. You’ll hear terms like solopreneurs, free-range humans, and portfolio careers. Whatever nomenclature you opt for, this tectonic shift in the social contract between workers and the companies that employ them could be viewed as either inherently freeing and positive or insecure, vulnerable, and downright scary. What we do know is that some 53 million Americans—one in three workers—derive some form of income outside of the traditional nine-to-five setting and are considered Freelancers.
The first picture these terms conjure up is of skilled professionals opting to pick and choose the work they engage in: well-educated millennials looking for creative outlets for their productive talents and measuring themselves in terms of their concrete contributions and results; individuals willing to forego job security for the possibility to choose where, when, and how they work, while having enough time and opportunity to travel and otherwise disengage from the workplace. This optimistic snapshot of solo contributors feeling fully engaged in their work and making just-in-time, creative contributions to the employers they choose to support is accurate for some. The counterreality is that far too many U.S. workers were displaced after the Great Recession of 2008 and are having tremendous difficulty regaining traction in their careers because of massive cuts in middle-class jobs—traditional roles that defined prior generations and that offered job security, benefits, and retirement options that have now disappeared due to outsourcing, offshoring, and mergers and acquisitions, created primarily by technological advances and globalization.