Is the future of work stuck in the past?

Feb 06, 2020

This article is reproduced with the permission of our partner, Trupo.

Almost 25 years ago, Freelancers Union was formed to cater to the needs of a growing independent workforce – one that didn’t have a mechanism to help everyone come together, pool resources, and advocate for their rights.

Now, roughly 56.7 million – one in three – Americans reported freelancing last year, contributing $1 trillion to the economy. Naturally, the rise of the gig economy, coworking spaces, and terms like “permalance” spark discussions and panels around the future of work.

Unfortunately, more often than not, Future of Work conversations focus on the impact on businesses rather than individual workers. Over a nice catered lunch, attendees are given advice on how businesses should market to the new workforce as consumers, and most recently, how technology and automation will affect business profitability and the labor force.

Notably absent from the talks are the middle-class workers directly shaping the future. These events happen at think tanks and academic institutions, fueled by an influx of philanthropic funding. Yes, they can lead to some interesting solutions for potential challenges the workforce could face, but they’re not coming from the people who are most affected by the changing work structure and economy. In fact, “The Future of Work” takeaways are often radically disconnected from the needs of American workers.

Meanwhile, workers don’t seem fazed by their exclusion from futurist gatherings about tomorrow’s workplace. They’re charting their own course, building that new workplace in real time and creating the social organizations they need to stay connected — some through traditional unions, others through Freelancers Union, membership associations, local area groups, and social networks.

And when Q+As around the future of work do talk about workers, a common flaw is fixating on individual workers over the community as a whole. Workers are social creatures, not solitary actors on an economic playing field. The challenges facing the new workforce will be addressed through the strength of community. This is why we’re building Trupo. It’s insurance is built on the principle that many people combining their resources is more powerful and resilient than everyone going at it alone.

As a lifelong labor organizer, I know the only politically viable way forward is to unite. Organizers employ human-centered design every day as workers tell them what challenges they’re facing and what resources and support they need to address them. “Future of Work” enthusiasts should focus their attention and energy on the institutions that organize workers; they are the ultimate focus group for any potential new solutions or policies.

The independent workforce is well on its way to creating the social organizations that will form a positive, lasting change in how everyone works and lives. The only question is whether policymakers, philanthropists and business leaders will get behind these builders, or just have the same rehashed talking points over $20 kale bowls.

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades. She founded Trupo in 2017 to create the next safety net for freelancers.