Changing Concepts of Work in the 21st Century

Have you ever thought about quitting your job and starting your own company? Due to the economic crisis and the opportunities that technology has created, many people seem to be currently asking themselves this question and are increasingly chosing microentrepreneurship as an alternative to employment.

This development was also the topic of a panel at last month’s Social Media Week, a global event with panels and workshops about social media and topics such as collaborative consumption and crowdfunding. At a panel, titled “The way out of the crisis: quit your full time job and found a company?” four speakers discussed why they decided to turn their back on a traditional nine – five worklife to pursue jobs that truly fulfill them.

What were some things that intrigued me? All panelists described the internet as being a key reason they were able to build their business. In comparison to 20 years ago, the startup costs of online based businesses are a lot lower, since require few physical resources. The internet is a crucial element in enabling people to make the transfer to being self-employed.

It is not only the low entry costs that are promoting self-employment. Technology is also enabling more flexible and independent work models such as coworking. According to a global coworking survey conducted by Deskmag, the size of the coworking movement has doubled every year since 2006. Their most current research states that the number of coworking spaces has grown from one in 2005 to 1800 coworking spaces worldwide in 2012.


Coworking is becoming increasingly popular.
Source: hyku via photopin, used under Creative Commons licsence.

What is causing this growth?

Apart from technological factors, the definitions and expectations of work seem to be undergoing a shift. As Leah Busque, co-founder and CEO of task sharing marketplace Taskrabbit said in an interview with the Huffington Post:

People are starting to rethink and redefine what work means to them.

Individuals, such as the four speakers I heard at the panel[1], all seemed to have chosen self-employment as a result of their search for not only a job but also a life that is filled with more meaning.

But isn’t self-employment a risky endeavour? Although it surely has its drawbacks such as instablility and lack of benefits, panel members said it is not as risky as it is said to be. Especially people who were burned during the economic recession by losing their jobs that were allegedly “secure” have come to the conclusion that the safest jobs are not necessarily in large organizations. In their eyes, taking things into their own hands and depending on nobody but themselves to pay the monthly bills is more secure than being hired.

A niche phenomenon?

Is this desire for autonomy only a niche phenomeon? Or are we headed towards a “free agent nation”, in which a large and growing share of the work force is self-employed, as Daniel Pink describes in his book “Free Agent Nation: the Future of Working for Yourself“? While the answer to this is still unclear, technology and emerging peer-to-peer marketplaces such as the marketplace for activities Gidsy, or Etsy, a marketplace for handmade goods, are giving Pink’s vision from the late 1990s a new twist.

Why? Because these platforms offer anyone, with the neceesary skills and time, the tools and resources to become a microentrepreneur over night. Thanks to Etsy, anyone with crafting skills can turn his hobby into a self-made business, since the company provides an online platform and an audience to sell such items to. Living in cities with a high cost of living like New York and Paris is becoming affordable again, because people can rent out their spare rooms on Airbnb.

More importantly, collaborative consumption advocate Rachel Botsman has pointed out that these services are “enabling us to rediscover a humanness that we’ve lost somewhere along the way”, because they are “built on personal relationships versus empty transactions.”

What I find most remarkable about this development is that many people are not only using these marketplaces to make extra money, but are using them to rebuild their existence by creating their own jobs instead of looking for existing ones. As the Huffington Post reports, Taskrabbit has already created over 4,000 jobs in the last 12 months — these often being people who became lost their jobs during the current economic recession, have given up looking for a “traditional” full time job and are now living by the motto “when jobs are scarce, create your own.”

A cultural shift?

A few years from now, a large share of our population may be working independently, collaborating through the Web, in coworking spaces or workplaces of their choice (as I am currently doing myself). But despite its many opportunties, such a shift also comes with fundamental challenges for government and society: If everyone were to work as a free agent, how would this impact our heath care and welfare systems, which are designed for societies in which the majority of people are employed? Will our legal and social enviroments be able to adapt the needs of more flexible and complex work models?

We are still far away from self-employment becoming the new “normal.” Still, I am convinced: peer-to-peer networks, modern technology and the coworking movement have already begun to transform our understanding of work in the 21st century. This a trend OuiShare will watch closely in the future.

What is your opinion on this development? Please answer in the comments.

[1] These were the panel speakers at social media week. Make sure to check out their interesting startups!

Photo credit: PaternitéPas d'utilisation commerciale Shira Golding