What is known as “contingent work,” or “flexible” and “alternative” staffing arrangements, has proliferated, although exact figures are hard to come by because of difficulties in tracking such workers. Many people are apparently looking at multiple temporary jobs as the equivalent of a diversified investment portfolio.
The notion that the nature of work is changing — becoming more temporary and project-based, with workers increasingly functioning as free agents and no longer being governed by traditional long-term employer-employee relationships — first gained momentum in the 1990s. But it has acquired new currency in this recession, especially among white-collar job seekers, as they cast about for work of any kind and companies remain cautious about permanent hiring.
In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists who study flexible work arrangements believe that the increase has been driven in large part by independent contractors like Mr. Sinclair and other contingent workers, struggling to cobble together whatever work they can find.
As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers’ confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.
I recently spoke to a class of journalism students at Emerson College in Boston. The night’s final question, technically off the topic of my visit (ethics) was striking: “Aren’t you freaked out by not having a job? Being freelance all the time?”
Like these people in the Times piece, I’ve been laid off from a few jobs, instantly and, a few times without clear warning, severed from well-paid work I enjoyed in my field. For me to sign up again, willingly and with a real sense of excitement, I’m not sure which employer would be The One. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Seniority, nope. Multiple graduate degrees? Not those either. The only protection against being canned, and falling deep into poverty, is saving the biggest amount of cash you possibly can and keeping your overhead as low as you and your loved ones can tolerate.
I was lucky in growing up in a household where no one ever had a “real” job — i.e. a steady, solid paycheck, a pension, paid sick days or vacation. Everyone worked as a creative freelancer: film, journalism, television. You live check to check. You get to know a really good accountant and try very hard not to get behind on your tax payments since it’s pay as you go. We drove (good) used cars, bought art and cashmere and plane tickets overseas in better years and enjoyed them in lean ones.
I learned young that even the best ideas you try to sell freelance can be ignored or stolen or shot down by people collecting paychecks because…they feel like it. They owed us no allegiance and we all knew the deal. It’s a painful and expensive lesson to learn instead mid-life and mid-career, as millions now have in the recession. Like a wave of bitter divorce(e)s, some of us aren’t eager to trot back up to the altar of full-time work. It’s too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.
Are you still in a full-time job? How secure — if at all — do you feel?
If you work for yourself, how’s that going? Do you feel more secure knowing it’s all up to you?