Non-Traditional Work is the New Tradition

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This post is part of Women’s Money Week. Today’s theme is Earning More through ‘Non-Traditional’ Work. Visit the site to read different insights from women bloggers on the topic.

The nature of work is changing. While there are still plenty of professions that require actually laying hands on materials and putting them together, a huge chunk of work today is done by staring at a computer. Robots and other machinery can do plenty already and their capabilities are improving. As a result, there are more people taking a ‘non-traditional’ approach to work.

Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere between 10 million and 42 million freelancers in the U.S. Those numbers tend to be based on definitions that involve working in non-permanent capacities for a company, though the specifics vary. Such work is often considered non-traditional, as well, though it’s more of a change from the last century or so of employment than from a long, multi-century tradition of working for just one employer. Part of the shift is due to how we work now: many businesses just don’t need as many full-time employees to get the same value as they did from workers in the past.

Consider the field of graphic design. Desktop publishing tools completely turned the profession on its head: a single designer with a Mac laptop and $1,000 worth of software is dramatically more productive than a designer who was working entirely on paper.

Face It, You’re Going Non-Traditional

No matter what else you’re certain of in today’s professional world, you can be sure that you’re going to wind up working in a new and different way eventually — in some way that will be considered entirely non-traditional. Don’t let that reality throw you, though. If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with some ‘non-traditional’ technology. The odds are against any particular job description changing over night: even truly disruptive technology takes time to filter through an industry. If you’re online right now, you’re probably going to be able to adapt with the same speed that most industries adopt new practices and technology.

To thrive, however, is now a matter of adapting faster. If you can pick up a new approach (whether we’re talking software, hardware, or even business practice) faster than your peers, you will have the advantage.

Being able to grasp that advantage and to stand out in the new, non-traditional world, you need to structure your career in certain ways. Some may require taking on work outside the normal structure of how your industry operates; don’t let what’s considered the norm hold you back. You need:

  • An established habit of learning: no matter what else you build into your day, you need to make sure you’re learning new things every single day. Take classes, read books and blogs, watch videos, go through tutorials — do it all. You do need to structure your learning approaches in such a way that you’re going to be able to use the information you pick up (and you though you were done taking notes when you graduated!) and you should be prepared to invest some of your own money in accessing these learning materials.
  • A way to put what you learn into practice: You need projects where you can try out new techniques and technology, preferably without having to argue with a manager or a client first. That usually means creating a side project or two that you can use as a testing ground. Make sure your project is professional, however, because you’re going to need to be able to show people the results of your efforts.
  • Clients or managers that are ahead of the game: You can’t just rely on your own projects to showcase your advantages (unless you’re fully prepared to self-publish, manufacture, or otherwise leverage whatever you’re creating). You need projects that will let you bring in the experience you’ve gained in your own time, which means working with people who are at least a little open to trying new things. If you aren’t working with those people, it’s time to consider a new job or gig.

Non-Traditional Work is Loosening the Rules

The question of how non-traditional work plays out is one of diversity: a company may not know a freelancer’s gender or ethnicity if a project is handled entirely online. There’s far less discussion of traditional credentials, like diplomas, when working with an outside contractor, as well. Taking less traditional approaches to hiring and managing projects means that big companies are offering opportunities to people who would never have had access to that work before.

It’s not a perfect situation in terms of shattering the glass ceiling. Contracting and other alternatives to full employment are often riskier to take on, even though a skilled freelancer can make more than her employed counterpart. A contract can end with no notice, a contractor has to purchase her own health insurance, and — this is the bit that makes my blood boil — there are plenty of situations in which companies choose not to pay contractors because they assume that independent workers don’t have the resources to pursue payment. Given that most estimates of the freelance work force put women well in the majority, the situation is something of a mixed bag.

As non-traditional work becomes more, well, traditional, however, I expect that the rules will continue to evolve. The number of options for health insurance alone continue to expand, making it easier to work for anyone but a big company. How we define work will guide what expectations we have for how that work is treated.

Image by Flickr user Aaron Patterson


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