“Is America over?” the folk singer Bill Callahan idly queried a small group of Brooklynites in an intimate concert venue. The crowd didn't seem to know.
Wikipedia defines the American Dream as a national ethos in which freedom means opportunity for everyone regardless of background or birth and upward social mobility achievable through hard work.
Today, that dream seems elusive. We're working hard, but the social safety net is out of sync with the new, growing class of contract workers. The pathway to a “good job” is no longer linear. Worker protections only extend to those working within a traditional structure – while the rising freelance workforce must cobble together its own, often very expensive, safety net.
On one hand, the freelance movement has revolutionized the American lifestyle: As freelancers, we pursue specialized careers of our choosing and with which we've aligned our values and skill sets. We’ve taken back our clock and assumed ownership of our time. We have more agency, creativity and independence than any other generation of worker before us. Many of us choose to live a little bit more simply for the privilege of living better.
Simultaneously, however, the missing social safety net threatens to thrust more power and economic control into the hands of corporations. As independent workers, we face many challenges: episodic income, the lack of affordable healthcare, client nonpayment, and scant worker protections against discriminatory practices. All of these can all conspire to put us teetering on a tightrope along the red bottom line. In order to close the gap and embrace the new way to work, we have a responsibility to leverage our collective power – as a constituency, as consumers, and at the workplace – to make the future of freelancing better.
If the American Dream is upward social mobility achievable through hard work, then today the “hard work” is coming together to nation build. Now is a moment of enormous potential: We can choose to create a system in which workers yield better, fuller lives for all. Rather than modeling our economy on the past, it’s time to create a community of true wealth that grants higher living standards and the pursuit of happiness to all who dwell within it.
As the freelance labor movement progresses, we can start to see the glimmers new models for organizing the new workforce. In California, the 1099 Self-Organizing Act would give freelancers the right to negotiate as a group with the company for which they work. Forward-thinking workers in tech and creative industries are turning to cooperative models as a way to engage and retain talented workers – and make sure those workers are paid and treated fairly. Workers at major platforms like Amazon are using technology to come together and make their voices heard. Finally, startups and government groups are beginning to explore concepts like Basic Income to support an increasingly automated culture. All of these experiments will shed light on the kind of structures we need to build to effectively support the way Americans work and live today.
Some of these ideas have gained steam and will become realities: In New York City, we’re rallying in support of landmark legislation to protect the community against client nonpayment. The #FreelanceIsntFree campaign began as an idea among a small group of freelancers then fledged into a movement in which independent workers from different industries, backgrounds, and experience levels shared their nonpayment stories and made their voices heard at New York City Hall. The Freelance Isn’t Free Bill now has the majority support in City Council and is well positioned to pass.
The thing about the income disparity gap and unfair labor practices is that money is power, but people are also power. Alone, we’re powerless and the American Dream is just that – a vaporish wisp of an old country tune. Together, we have the strength to push this nation into a better future for all – we just have to do the hard work and build it.
America isn't over; in Freelance Nation, it's just beginning.