Rethinking the Definition of Work

Perhaps it is time to rethink our traditional definitions of work given new labor trends: the changing structure of the workforce, the rise of independent and fissured work and the growing gig economy.
— ZiQi Lin

What does work mean in our society? Is work exclusively a source of income, or has it evolved to reflect one’s individual identity and a means to imbue our lives with meaning? Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, has reported that the gig economy is estimated to be 34% of the US workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020. Based on a study by “Freelancing in America,” there are an estimated 56.7 million freelancers in America in 2018. Millennials are leading the way as nearly half are already freelancing, which is more than any previous generation.

This tide of independent freelancers has also given rise to a flourishing sector that provides co-working spaces. WeWork, the world’s largest and fastest growing provider of shared working spaces, has workspaces located in 25 countries around the world such as Australia, China and Mexico. WeWork’s international expansion strategy reflects that the market for co-working spaces catering to freelancing professionals exist not only in developed countries but also in developing nations. Industry-specific workspaces are also emerging, such as Spring Place in New York which provides workspaces for creatives in fashion, art, and business to ideate and collaborate. Organizational structures are also evolving as the flattening of hierarchies has given employees increasing autonomy and power over decision-making. The trend of decentralization of organizational hierarchies is further facilitated by increasingly niche specializations and a democratization of education.

This flexible horizontal division of labor remains in contrast to the rigid vertical structure found traditionally in large corporations.
— ZiQi Lin

These trends of a growing gig economy and the changing structure of the workplace are perhaps most visible in industries where workers thrive on creativity and independence. A burgeoning number of self-employed freelancers can be found in sectors ranging from law to the arts. The advent of the Internet has brought an explosion of information while a ubiquity of communication tools has empowered grassroots storytellers. A new wave of influencers who expertly straddle multiple social media channels have been propelled into the spotlight, dictating everything from our food choices to political opinions. It is as empowering as it is disorienting for traditional media industries, who are struggling to retain even experienced journalists with their shrinking subscription sales. Digital disruptions have sent media companies reeling. Gone are the days when newspapers monopolized information transfer and advertising revenue. In 2017, Google and Facebook grabbed more than 60% of digital ad revenue, with no other company coming close.

While freelancing gives employees more autonomy over choice of projects and more flexibility with working hours, it also compromises employment security and basic protections. Future employees will have to rely on themselves to undergo regular skill-upgrading and to insure themselves. New policies have been implemented to help creative freelancers navigate this brave new labor market characterized by opportunities and uncertainties. The Government of Singapore – for example – unveiled the Attach and Train Program (ATP) in 2016 to help strengthen the skills of freelancers in creative industries. This program offers participants an opportunity to be attached to a company for a period of time and to work on company projects, while undergoing regular skills training with a mentor. New York City also passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in 2017 to prevent exploitation of independent workers as many are paid late or not paid at all. After being in effect for a year, the act recovered $250,000 in lost wages.

However, the future of work should not only be defined by the external conditions of our labor market, but also by the attitudes and values that youth today carry. Technology alone cannot dictate what the future holds. Even more important are young people’s perception of what work is, and what they want work to mean. As Richard Florida wrote in “The Rise of The Creative Class,” the goal of Creative Age is not just to find a job, but to create jobs for yourself and others. Some of the most successful people today are entrepreneurs who are charting meaningful and unconventional careers by bringing their unique ideas into fruition. Among the Class of 2017 Forbes 30 under 30, nearly half define success as “achieving your potential,” as well as “liking yourself and what you do.” In contrast, only 4% claim to pursue success for fame and fortune.

As OECD countries transition into a post-materialist stage of development, priorities have begun to shift from pursuing economic growth to emphasizing self-expression and quality of life. Similarly, job motivations in younger demographics have evolved to reflect such trends, as the bright and hungry are in search of meaningful work that reflect their personal values. Nevertheless, this reality may only be attainable for a privileged fraction of the young population that predominantly resides in wealthier and developed economies where job opportunities are abundant.

Ironically, the future of work may lie where the term “work” itself is growing obsolete. If you love what you do and enjoy every single second of it, can it still be considered work?
— ZiQi Lin