Surrender the Journey
For more than five months Neil and Jen Baker Brown have chosen the most inefficient means
possible — driving 18,500+ miles — to meet with individuals and organizations across the country in an attempt to curate a collective vision of the future where the combination of work and life is the great adventure. In this article series, they are reporting on their travels, conversations, experiences, fears, challenges, hopes and especially the expectations and opportunities for the future creative.
The Future of Creativity: Work is Forever Changed
The way we work, and ultimately how we live, has been wholly upended. With the rapid increase of independent contractors and on-demand, online talent platforms disrupting the creative industry at large, work is forever changed.
The pavement abruptly ceases, punctuated by a sharp dip rattling the suspension as our route breaks to a shoddy gravel drive. The sun is bright, engulfed by the endless turquoise sky of the high desert in northern New Mexico. Several miles later, the gravel deteriorates into a sanguine dirt road, washed-out every few feet, causing us to slow our pace dramatically and question if our sedan is fit for the task at hand. Crawling our way toward Chaco Culture National Park, we only see two boys on horseback. We push ahead—slowly—unsure of what we will find upon arrival.
The highly complex and dynamic Chacoan civilization reigned the western regions of North America for nearly four centuries, 850-1250 A.D. Archaeologists have found evidence of trade as far north as Alaska and as far south as Argentina, and believe the Chacoan society was more advanced than its European contemporaries. However, the elaborate civilization began unravelling around 1140. Scholars offer various possibilities leading to the collapse of the Chaco culture: chronic climate instability, severe drought, poor water management, or even possibly violence and warfare. Regardless, one of the world’s most sophisticated civilizations dispersed and simply vanished within one generation, shrouded in mystery to this day. Throughout human history societies rise and fall, economic paradigms shift, ways of life dramatically change, human behavior adapts and new opportunities blossom.
Today, the tech elite of San Francisco, Austin, New York and many other cities across the country have fundamentally altered the course of life—immediate convenience with one tap of a ‘button’ behind slick, scratch resistant glass. Whether a car, a delivery, or a website; a few clicks and done! A design challenge easily resolved by any number of wonderfully talented creatives. Yet, the implications of such immediacy and serviceability have yet to be fully realized. Who drives me from point A to B? Who navigates the last mile deliver ing my laundry detergent to the front stoop? Who is building my website, a person or a robot? And at what profit margin—for the tech elite and for the individual? What are the long term, economic implications of on-demand labor, on-demand convenience, on-demand creativity? One could argue that such implications will never reach into the creative, problem solving industries. Yet investors are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that knowledge-based, creative work is forever changed.
Currently 34 percent of the U.S. population is on 1099, working as an independent contractor. Most are fully independent freelancers, some moonlight working evenings and weekends on top of full time employment, and others juggle a disparate combination of several part-time contract jobs. By 2020, the percentage will increase to forty percent. And then jump north of fifty percent by the year 2030. These are statistics never before seen in modern U.S. economic history. When surveyed, many of these independent contractors say they prefer the flexibility in work and schedule, the opportunity to take or refuse work, and in general the facade of personal control. However, the converse is actually true. The contractor is at the behest of the marketplace— consumer or client. It is an interesting psychological paradigm for the laborer to feel in power, yet ultimately (and statistically) he succumbs to the demand of solicitation.
With the continued increase in numbers of independent contractors in the U.S, an opportunity is ripe. Online talent platforms, such as Upwork, Working not Working, TopTal, People as a Service (yes, that is the real company name), LiquidTalent, People Per Hour and more, will increase global GDP by two percent within the next decade, which will generate an additional $2.7 trillion in the global economy through two simple factors: creating greater efficiency in communication and transparent accountability structures in the management of distributed, contract labor.
This growth increases employment by 72 million full-time-equivalent positions. Online talent platforms quickly level the global playing field, providing instant access to any global labor market with access to stable internet. These same platforms can potentially increase employee productivity and simultaneously reduce the costs and efforts of recruitment and talent management.
Companies are currently navigating obstacles with the expanding contract labor force. Homejoy, an on-demand cleaning service, recently shut down as it faced four labor law suits from its own contractors, plus the company was hemorrhaging customers and cleaners. The world’s largest transportation company, Uber, owns no vehicles nor has any drivers within its employ. As of January this year Uber had 162,000+ independent contract drivers in the U.S. complete four or
more trips the month prior. If these contractors were employees, Uber could not have a projected valuation north of $ 60 billion. Facing a class action law suit in the state of California, Uber has retained one of the world’s largest law firms as its representation.
Speculation leads to a simple concern of our current, and exceptionally out-dated, labor standards in the U.S. Our labor law is based on a nineteenth century workforce. Could it be possible that Uber’s law firm will have a hand in reshaping labor standards as we know them, and to the benefit of whom? Is the binary standard of employee or independent contractor, based on who has the most control, an adequate set for our current and future structure of work? Will a new precedent soon be defined in the U.S. court system? How will future labor policy effect the creative industries?
Most anyone within the labor force today has a baseline expectation of an eight hour work day, a forty hour work week, weekends free of responsibility, paid national holidays, minimum wage, paid time off, child labor limits and much more. There was a time in American history, in the last century, when none of these expectations existed. The laborer was at the mercy of the powers of industry. That changed —thankfully. We owe these labor standards to our forefathers, the generation of workers that collectively organized in order to increase their influence and bargaining power.
We owe these labor standards to our forefathers, the generation of workers that collectively organized in order to increase their influence and bargaining power.
The distinction between employee and independent contractor is based on the degree of control and independence which falls into three loosely defined categories—behavioral, financial, and the type of relationship—which are open to interpretation and argument in a court of law. As the labor force transitions over the next two decades from a majority of employees working for corporations to an overwhelming number of independent contractors, many companies (their lawyers and investors) will be working tirelessly to reconstruct the way we work, how we compete, how we are paid and much more.
Revised labor standards could require a more complicated tax filing, or perhaps lead to a simpler approach to reporting taxes. The working relationship between brands and individual freelancers, social influencers, etc. could shift more liability to the contractor. The ability for agencies to scale up a creative team for a newly won account might become more efficient operationally, yet put a greater administrative and personal management burden on the independent talent. The already highly nuanced, corporate human resources liabilities may become even more granular.
On the flip side of the equation, collaborative partnerships between talent and company could be more beneficial. Organizations such as the AIGA and Freelancers Union may have the opportunity to expand their offerings and bring even greater value to their members. Small freelance collectives and creative co-working groups could gain significant influence and credibility becoming the future agency model working with the world’s largest brands. The list of potential opportunities could go on and on. To answer these questions definitively is a tall order, one that sounds to be the next great frontier, rife with challenges yet presenting boundless opportunity for those willing to stake their claim in the great unknown.
We don’t have all the answers, nor propose that we will devise them. We have, however, chosen the most inefficient means possible to discover those considering these questions and working to design their own solutions. We’re driving around the country to meet these individuals—to meet you—to curate a collective vision of the future where the combination of work and life are the great adventure.
As we travel we’re always on the lookout for the intriguing individuals and exceptional organizations working to shape our current and future reality. Reach out directly if you would like to connect or make a recommendation on who we should meet. We also appreciate any introductions! Follow our journey at social.bakerbrownco.com, learn more about the individuals we’re meeting along the way on our site, and sign up for our newsletter.
Struggling to file your taxes as a freelance designer? Check out this handy toolkit.