The Future of Work is Exciting as Hell But I Still Don’t Want to Be Your Wage Slave

Let’s not forget to humanize the new economy.

This recent Medium article describes the changing nature of work — the rise of the on-demand economy, fragmented freelance work and emerging marketplaces for labor.

It gives a reasonably accurate description of trends in the labor market, at least along one vector. On another level, it’s a propaganda piece (native advertising) sponsored by a platform (Upwork) that perpetuates the commodification of human capital. While I won’t deny that the observed trends may hold significant benefits, I think they also pose implications that are more insidious.

This piece presents the shift from single-employer to a mishmash of “micro-careers” as something revolutionary, a new path for career empowerment. To me, though, it seems more often another way of extracting surplus value from workers and leaving them beholden to those entities that retain most of the keys to the economic kingdom. The main difference: now instead of having one boss, you might have a dozen, or you might have one (e.g. Uber, Taskrabbit) with whom your relationship is amorphous and unstable.

One claim made here is that “this manner of work is going professional” — that it’s going beyond low-wage side gigs to permeate more lucrative fields where one can assemble “a well-paid career as a multi-faceted free agent.” All well and good, for those who can hack it. But what about when workers, even highly-skilled ones, are systemically exploited? Behold this gem, presented in the article as a straight-faced examplar:

“One General Electric program shows how that can play out. In 2013, GE opened up a public contest called the Bracket Challenge. Their jet engine division needed a new lightweight design for brackets that would help hold an engine on an airplane. About 700 people from all over the world submitted designs. GE chose one by M Arie Kurniawan, an engineer living in Indonesia. Kurniawan won $7,000, and GE got a part that’s 84 percent lighter than its predecessor.

The program was such a success that GE plans to launch many more design challenges in coming years.”

It should go without saying that the outcomes of this example — the engineering equivalent of 99 Designs-type malfeasance — is ludicrously biased in favor of the sponsoring corporation. In what world is it fair to crowdsource work and then only pay one person out of seven hundred? Even if the article elided some details that might soften my appraisal of this particular case, I don’t like the implications.

There’s certainly an upshot that sounds, at least on the surface, to hold a lot of quite positive potential:

“All these developments are making it possible for a typical professional to have a multi-faceted career with several sources of income…The work week can be as many hours you want, with whatever schedule you desire.”

I won’t lie — I like the idea of multiple streams of income, a diverse array of work, and increased flexibility! But it’s worth digging a bit to interrogate some of the principles that scaffold this vision, particularly for those who don’t stand at the pinnacle of privilege.

We must be aware that this idealized vision is often accompanied by things like tenuous ties to employers via short-term contracts, and races to the bottom as marketplaces compete and in the process extract most hope of meaningful profit from those who power them. We’re seeing this happen all over the place, perhaps most transparently in how the competition between Uber and Lyft is playing out. And I wouldn’t be so sure that similar disenfranchisement — the underbelly of the on-demand, freelance economy — can’t affect even those with higher-wage professional skills.

For when it comes down to it, the entire thesis here is predicated on maintaining reliance on waged relationships, which to me seems not only regressive but…rather boring! There are many threads of exciting potential for the new economics of labor, marketplaces, and careers — from creative entrepreneurship enabled by Kickstarter and Patreon, to the tantalizing (if admittedly complicated and idealistic) promises of universal basic income, to the increasing ease of earning a living independently by writing, teaching, and selling expertise — expertise not merely packaged as hours of human labor, but honed into meticulous manifestations of sustainable value conveyance: books, courses, videos, art, inventions, and more.

Towards the end of the article we’re led to believe that “…while this kind of dynamic, entrepreneurial life may horrify an older generation, we already know that younger workers tend to prefer their work to be more ephemeral.” I understand the sentiment here, but I don’t think it’s quite right. It’s not that young workers want our work to be ephemeral — we just want to eliminate ties to work situations that are antiquated and restrictive.

I’ll speak for myself here: I’d like my work to be lasting and meaningful, to have continuity and sustained purpose. Yes, ultimately I’d like for that work to be on my own terms. But no, I don’t think pimping myself out on online labor marketplaces will pave the road to this goal.

While I’m currently lucky to have a full-time job that affords a balance of stability and independence, my career goal is to blaze my own trail, craft my own vision of success, and be my own taskmaster. I don’t expect it to be a quick and easy journey, but I know that my long-term success will be something I define. It will derive from value I create, not from inventing ways to plug fragments of myself into the holes of the market’s labor demands.

I’m all in favor of examining the changing economy and exploring the future of work, but we must do it in a way that focuses on the creativity, autonomy, agency and value of the individual — and we must recognize that this means valuing much more than the exchange rate on one’s time.