“No matter how well I did my job or how much I improved things, ultimately what I was doing was moving numbers from one column to another column,” Krause said.
A year later, amid a rousing protest against the G-20 Summit near her office, Krause had a deeper epiphany. “I was climbing this ladder, but I looked ahead of myself and I saw that no matter how far up it I climbed, there was nowhere up there I wanted to go,” Krause recalled in a speech at the New Frontiers 2016 conference in New Zealand.
Embarking on a journey many might dream of, Krause quit her job and traveled through Spain, India, and the U.S., looking for meaning and fulfillment. She eventually landed in Wellington, New Zealand, where she joined the decentralized, entrepreneurial collective Enspiral.
Functioning as a supportive umbrella for freelancers and social enterprises, Enspiral offers its members creative independence and a strong sense of community. Members pool and invest a portion of the profits from their work into new social-impact projects.
Alanna Krause shows how collective funds can be used at Enspiral.
Enspiral is “a bubble within which we can make our own economy, where we get to set the rules,” Krause says. “We don’t have to wait for the world out there to change for us to start living in the transition economy, right now.”
While Enspiral may operate in a bit of a bubble because its core members are highly paid independent software programmers, it is part of a growing movement forging new paths for freelancers in an increasingly unstable work world.
Like an extended smashing of atoms, the 9-to-5 job market has shattered and splintered over the past 25 years in ways that have both liberated and trapped millions of workers.
Uber drivers, ditch-digging day laborers, adjunct professors, freelance software designers, temp attorneys, domestic workers, and often woefully underpaid “task rabbits” hired online at a moment’s notice, wouldn’t appear to have much in common. Their pay and working conditions vary wildly, and some push paper while others handle steering wheels, mops, diapers, or sledge hammers — but what unites them is a gig economy marked by flexibility, instability, innovation, and legal and financial uncertainty.
As the gig economy proliferates, growing numbers are breaking away and creating their own work communities, based on a mix of autonomy and interdependence. Combating precarious economics and social isolation, freelancers are using new open-source technology and old-fashioned shoe leather organizing to create new ways to work and to work together.
Enspiral, for instance, uses a mix of physical meeting spaces, open-source technology, and digital organizing to help workers build creative and economic independence as well as community. The collective is just one piece of a burgeoning global freelancers’ movement that is helping independent workers to reposition power and ownership in a platform-driven age.
Even a successful story like Enspiral remains both inspiring and cautionary.
“Our freelancer co-op model is still underdeveloped,” cofounder Joshua Vial explains. “We face many unsolved challenges such as recruiting leadership, providing income security, managing quality, securing sufficient working capital, resourcing work ‘on’ the business and supporting people without managing them.”
As the economy promotes this dizzying mix of exploitation and inventive community-building, freelance workers — in both higher and lower wage sectors — are fighting for legal rights, creating new work arrangements, and building businesses with social vision. Somewhere between economic coercion and human agency, with plenty of success and struggle, freelancers are finding their way through the economic wilderness.
Scanning the freelancing terrain, Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, says he finds loose-knit “guild-like groups informally banding together to help each other” who are sharing their networks and resources for mutual gain. From coworking spaces to platform-based support groups, these freelancers’ networks have cropped up organically, King says.
The constellation of freelancer organizing ranges from Enspiral-type freelancer collectives to newfangled unions for gig workers such as Uber drivers. Whether fighting for living wages and basic rights, or collaborating on projects with fellow freelancers, these initiatives share the larger aim of creating meaning, dignity, and power in their work together.
The gig economy’s roots
As more goods and services are sold via the web and mobile apps on an as-needed (or wanted) basis, the freelance and gig workforce has exploded. In the U.S. alone, 55 million people — about 35 percent of the total labor force — worked on a freelance basis in 2016, according to a newly released study by the New York City-based Freelancers Union and digital freelancing platform Upwork. The ranks of freelancers jumped by 700,000 in just one year, from 2014-2015. Roughly two-thirds of freelancers, 63 percent, are working independently by choice rather than sheer necessity, the study found.
Just in time for the elections, the study also concluded that 67 percent of freelancers “are more likely to vote for candidates who say they support them having ‘a strong voice in deciding issues about their work’ or ‘having access to health and retirement benefits regardless of their employment status.’”
Now that everything else is scalable, modular, liquid and temporary, shouldn’t your benefits be portable? Photo: Freelancers Union, Flickr.
“Independent professionals are an increasingly integral part of the U.S. workforce,” Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel says. “We should be addressing their interests or America will fall behind countries that are better equipping their evolving workforces.”
Freelancers “are a diverse but vital part of the U.S. economy, contributing over $1 trillion in freelance earnings to the economy,” Horowitz says. “Now’s the time for business leaders, policy makers and candidates alike to stand up and take notice of their potential influence and to start developing ways to help them overcome the most pressing issues impacting their lives.”
Beyond the coffee shop: freelancers go from « working alone together » to working collectively. Photo by Tim Gouw, Unsplash.
The complex and evolving landscape of freelancing includes compelling success stories but also deep disparities, just as in the larger labor market. “Because contingent work can be unstable or afford fewer worker protections, it tends to lead to lower earnings, fewer benefits, and a greater reliance on public assistance than standard work,” a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated.
Despite vast ranges in worker empowerment and income, this is a precarious group, the GAO found. Contingent workers are more likely than full-time employees to be people of color, women, low-income, and with less education and class mobility.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the ranks of Britain’s self-employed workers have risen by 732,000 since 2008, while permanent conventional jobs rose by 339,000, according to an in-depth report published by Co-operatives UK and partners titled “Not Alone.” But while this may seem a sign of spirited entrepreneurialism, the report found that low-income workers in the self-employed sector are now the norm.
This upheaval has its roots in a deeper power struggle over the terms and conditions of labor. “There is a long-term shift of power from workers to employers since the 1970s,” says Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston University.
Schor says plunging rates of unionization, increased corporate power, anti-labor policies since the Reagan era in the U.S., and a move to producing goods on an as-needed basis globally, have led to a “weakening of workers” — a key reason behind today’s precarious labor. This steady diminishing of workers’ rights has placed even more power in the hands of corporations.
Amid a more volatile global market, “companies don’t want to be locked into providing income security for their workers,” says Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This volatility is one of the driving factors behind the freelancers’ collectives cropping up today. But it’s not a new phenomenon. “In the nineteenth century, working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies and the first unions,” the authors of the “Not Alone” report noted.
In today’s “age of economic insecurity and rapid changes in technology there is now the opportunity to reinvent democratic self-help for the twenty-first century in order to widen participation on a fair basis for all in work,” the report added.
Freelancers get collective
Today’s freelancer collectives are driven not just by fancy technology and well-remunerated innovation — they’re sometimes driven by a passion for social change at community and societal levels.
In Spain’s Catalonia region, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC) offers everything from common meeting places and community dialogues on economic alternatives, to income tax benefits and community pantries where people share local food.
The cooperative strives to be an autonomous community and is building its own kind of political-cultural-economic commons. Once every two weeks, the cooperative hosts open assemblies to discuss ongoing and new projects, ranging from reports and documentaries on capitalism, to developing independent currencies to conduct trade outside of the larger economic system.
The CIC has set its sights on a wider transformation of society — a vision that spans personal autonomy, community sovereignty, and creative exploration of new ways of living and working.
“It is one of our tasks, empowering us to explore other forms of reciprocity, use of social currencies, fair coins, direct barter and exchange, un-monetized economies, and gift economies,” CIC member Raquel Benedicto says.
Other collectives may not be as explicitly political, yet are forging new collaborative communities that are slowly but surely democratizing the economics of creativity.
In Berlin, the Agora Collective provides artists and other creative workers with a shared space and collaborative formats for developing their work. Agora, which was founded as a coworking space in 2011, provides studios for artists and dancers, collaborative artist workshop programs, residencies, and programs that support international artist collaborations.
“Our coworking floors accommodate professionals of all fields, and allow a diverse and active community to flourish in our building,” the group describes on its website.
With strategic partnerships across Europe, and financial assistance from the Nordic Culture Fund and the Swiss Foundation among others, Agora has been able to think big — providing not only coworking spaces and collaborations, but ongoing dialogues and projects that invite new ways of thinking about work and how it should be valued. Agora’s Circular Economy project, for instance, is an extended conversation about ways to re-organize production and consumption to eliminate waste.
Similarly, Netherlands-based Seats2Meet (S2M) blends shared workspaces and social networking, tapping an immense desire among freelancers to expand opportunities and social connections. Since its launch with just 10 people in 2005, S2M has grown steadily, connecting tens of thousands of independent workers to thousands of free, shared workspaces around the world — and to each other. As Shareable reported in 2013, S2M links freelancers up with diverse kinds of physical spaces, including ice cream shops, libraries, theatres, and even hospitals.
S2M president Ronald van den Hoff says what began as an experiment in sharing physical spaces evolved into a knowledge exchange, peer support network, and community for oft-isolated indie workers. “The rise of the numbers of people using the ‘free workplaces and catering’ was staggering,” Van den Hoff says. “Within months we had hundreds of independent workers daily visiting us, filling up the public lounge, and logistically we were completely overwhelmed.”
Seats2Meet headquarters in Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Neal Gorenflo.
Freelancers, “started to co-work almost automatically and share their knowledge and network, [and] somehow the reciprocity flourished,” he says. “So we decided to use ‘the willingness to share’ as a form of payment.” In other words, people could co-work for free as long as they agreed to help each other.
Although S2M is a for-profit company, Van den Hoff says its detachment from venture capital and other forms of investment return imperatives has empowered this model of sharing work among freelancers.
“The main limit is people themselves: the moment startups are financed by VC’s, they are protecting their assets — ‘it is my database, my network, my clients’ — and they lose their ability to share,” he says.
S2M is redefining work and workers’ relationship to each other in important ways. Providing free workspace to those who help each other, for instance, represents the seed of a new social contract between workers, rather than between workers and companies. The organization’s community is rooted in peer support.
New Zealand’s Enspiral Network has also created an inspired model of freelancer collaboration and community. What began as a coworking space among like-minded people in Wellington six years ago has evolved into a new-fangled cooperative linking freelancers and social enterprises in a global network of mutual aid and collective action.
Like other freelancer collectives, Enspiral, has grown beyond simply sharing a physical space. The organization mixes independence and collectivism, enabling creative workers such as graphic designers, tech gurus, data whizzes, and others to pursue their ventures — with administrative and other support systems funded collectively by the group’s members.