Independent Workers Will Be the Majority, Again

If you take a look at the job titles back on your family tree beyond the last hundred years or so, you’re not going to see a lot of company men. You might see a few different job titles, like farmer, sailor, tailor or blacksmith. In the 1800s or so, you might see a few factory workers. But in any period before the Industrial Revolution, you’re probably looking at a family history full of people working for themselves or for marginally wealthier landowners in their area. There simply weren’t big companies the way there are today — there was no infrastructure for them.

But there may be too much infrastructure to make many of those big companies sustainable in the future. I strongly believe that we’re going to see independent workers as a majority portion of the workforce in the near future.

The Trend Towards Contractors

The big trend that will minimize the number of employees that many companies rely on is the move towards contractors: in order to cut costs, many companies have already significantly reduced their workforces, bringing in contractors as necessary to do certain work. The savings are significant. Even if a company pays a contractor a great hourly rate, the fact that there’s no need to pay for downtime, office space, health insurance and so on, means that there’s a significant savings.

Even when big businesses have more money to spend on labor, it’s doubtful that they will hire back the employees that they’ve laid off. A ‘jobless recovery’ is guaranteed.

But that also means a boom time for contractors, especially skilled individuals willing to invest time in finding the right gigs. Some jobs are difficult to hand off to independent contractors (especially those who never set foot in an office), but technology has transformed the majority of work done today.

The (In)Stability of Big Business

The forty-year man is turning out to be a fluke of the 20th century. The idea that a worker could devote his life to a company and expect to be taken care of in return has already been proven to not play out in the long-term — it functioned for less than a century.

In part, that’s because big companies have to be run primarily for profit. If there’s no possible way for the CEO to even meet every employee working at the company, how can we expect that he will make those employees anything resembling a priority? I’m not saying that C-level executives are hard on employees on purpose, but if you can’t picture the people you work with, you automatically dehumanize them. So the folks near the top make out pretty well, because they’re ‘real’ to their bosses and the folks down at the bottom don’t get the same opportunities. It’s going to be harder and harder to find smart people to take on jobs in the lower echelons of big business.

When you add in the fact that layoffs have become a way of life for many employees, going to the office each day doesn’t look particularly good.

Infrastructure Offers Options

Modern technology allows me to manage projects with contractors located around the world. There’s no need for me to hire a local employee and try to keep her busy for a set number of hours a day. When you consider that technology isn’t about to slow down, it evens seems unfair to offer to pay on an hourly basis — a good contractor or entrepreneur may be able to easily find ways to handle certain projects very quickly. Personally, I don’t care how work is done, as long as it meets my requirements as far as due date and quality. Hourly rates punish the best workers, in a way.

Our ancestors worked on individual projects because there just weren’t the tools to make it possible to collaborate well. The biggest organizations — like standing armies — relied on rigid hierarchies to communicate ideas.

As technology evolved, it was possible to grow larger organizations without having to structure them quite so rigidly. Good communication tools and improved processes made it possible for huge organizations to function without quite as thick of a management layer as an old-school army might require. Think about the bigger companies you’ve seen in action: it isn’t necessary to have a squad leader for every eight employees, plus the chain of command for platoons, companies and so forth. Depending on the type of work employees are handling, there may be one manager for anywhere from ten to one hundred employees.

Today, as long as you’ve got decent infrastructure in place (good project management software, communication tools and so on), one person can orchestrate a hundred contractors completing projects for a single company without many difficulties. That makes independent workers the obvious answer to most labor needs, especially as the infrastructure continues to improve.


  1. Steven Mandzik   •  

    “Even if a company pays a contractor a great hourly rate, the fact that there’s no need to pay for downtime, office space, health insurance and so on, means that there’s a significant savings.”

    I love it. I would much rather be out of an office, handle my own insurance, and get paid more. What’s not to love about that?

  2. carol   •  

    Oh god, we’re all going to be freelancers? Sounds exciting! But scary!!! So how do you not fail at being an independent worker?

    • thursday   •     Author

      It’s not as scary as it might seem. The most successful independent workers have a lot in common with successful employees — it’s a question of pushing yourself forward and jumping on opportunities. The only reason I’m successful at my work is because I plant myself at my desk, day after day.

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