Government reports cite the lowest unemployment rate since the Great Recession, but that good news must come with the realization that the definition of “job” has changed.
According to a report from Harvard and Princeton economists, nearly all of that job growth -- about 94 percent -- is the result of alternative careers, freelancing, Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) businesses and the “gig economy.” Unskilled factory jobs have been relegated once-and-for-all to automation and robotics, and to a lesser degree offshoring. While manufacturing output in America has tripled over the past 30 years, the unskilled hourly jobs that used to dominate the industry are dwindling. Not only do today’s jobs require a different set of skills, today’s jobs require us to re-think what a “job” really is.
Rethinking how we define a job is leading to a new wave of small-scale entrepreneurship and business growth with powerful new opportunities. Entrepreneurship in America is cyclical. Whereas launching a small business in postwar America was relatively easy, business became more institutionalized in the new millennia, and entrepreneurs faced more obstacles than ever.
Breaking down barriers
Two factors are breaking down those barriers. First, a new gig economy driven by born-in-the-cloud platforms like Lyft, Upwork, and niche sites like FitnessTrainer.com are providing the opportunity and the platform for small-time entrepreneurs to dip a toe in the water.
Second, a rethinking of corporate models since the Great Recession has led to a more agile lean way of doing business that abandons the “corporate monolith” model once again makes small-time entrepreneurship a realistic career alternative to the nearly-obsolete ideal of getting a job at a big company, staying for 30 years to retire with a pension and gold watch. Those types of jobs may be increasingly unavailable, but there are many more small businesses, entrepreneurs and SOHO companies in peoples’ garages that are filling the gap. This is what we call the "dotcloud."
If people aren’t getting traditional jobs, what are they doing for a living? Andrew Marcus, co-founder of FitnessTrainer.com, a gig economy platform for personal fitness trainers to connect with people looking for fitness education and guidance, says “People are anxious for options. They want a more flexible way to earn a living, and the ability to take charge of their own careers in a way that was never possible in the corporate employment world.”
Marcus notes that gig economy jobs often make up a significant portion, and often all, of an individual’s income. “It’s not an ‘extra beer money’ situation anymore,” said Marcus. “Traditional jobs are not as sought-after or desirable as they once were, especially by younger workers who want more flexibility and quality of life. Workers of all types are turning to gig platforms as a preferred alternative to the thirty-years-and-out ideal of the previous generation.”
Whether engaged in a traditional career job or self-employment, millennials’ wants and needs are changing the market and opening the door for more gig platforms. According to a recent PwC report, “Millennials at work, Reshaping the workplace,” the most important work benefit millennials want is personal learning and development, followed by flexible work hours, with cash bonuses registering a distant third. “Millennials are increasingly turning to gig platforms as a means of achieving that work/life balance and flexibility that they so highly value,” said Marcus.
That observation is echoed by the Federal Reserve Board, which fielded its Enterprising and Informal Work Activity (EIWA) survey, which concluded that 36 percent of the adult population has undertaken informal paid work activity either as a complement to, or substitute for, more traditional work arrangements.
The art of the gig
Marcus didn’t create FitnessTrainer.com to be a Silicon Valley giant, rather, it came out of his own desire to create gigs for himself and his college buddies. His first company, MytennisLessons.com, started with a handful of University of Connecticut students giving personal tennis lessons.
“We’ve taken full advantage of the gig economy at every step,” said Marcus. “After getting a small amount of seed money from a college competition, we rented a home that doubled as an office, and funded some of our start-up expenses by renting out rooms on AirBnB. Now we’ve expanded both companies into a full-fledged platform, with over 5,000 fitness trainers offering services through FitnessTrainer.com.”
Marcus and his business partner, Jesse Silkoff, made the transition from just finding their own gigs by advertising on Craigslist, to creating their own online marketplace to allow others to do the same, when the gigs they were getting were coming in faster than the two of them could handle.
“When we realized there were thousands of other people like us who wanted to provide coaching lessons on their own terms, rather than being employed by a gym or a tennis club, we knew it was time to transition our little operation to a nationwide service,” said Marcus.
Today, gig economy platforms often mark the first step towards entrepreneurship for a new class of workers eager for an alternative to the inflexibility of paycheck-driven employment. These platforms, along with innovations like smartphone apps and a dramatic increase in the quality of cloud-driven communications, are rapidly breaking down barriers and allowing us to think beyond conventional employment options. The existence of these platforms have created an entirely new class of SOHO entrepreneurs, who now have access to the tools and infrastructure that are rapidly changing how we define what a “job” really is.