In the past few days, two reports on the free agent economy from major news sources have crossed my desk. The New York Times and The Guardian both profile individuals who have abandoned traditional work situations in favor of the freedom and flexibility of the “portfolio” lifestyle.
The Times focuses on individuals who are piecing together work from a variety of sharing economy businesses such as Task Rabbit, Lyft and Favor. The women profiled in the Times have chosen this type of work in order to have flexibility that was not available at their previous full-time jobs, however the Times notes, as others before them have as well, that workers need to hustle hard to make a decent living through these marketplaces. Moreover, business risk is all shunted to the worker. Online employment marketplaces don’t provide any kinds of benefits and workers may spend additional time getting from job to job in this patchwork situation than they would getting to a single job and staying put all day.
The Guardian paints a rosier picture, featuring free agents living a far more aspirational lifestyle. The profiles in the Guardian’s piece, aptly titled Out of Office: People Who Work Wherever They Want all focus on people who work remotely or run their small businesses from exotic locales that represent a fantasy to most of us. Some pick up and move several times per year. Others home school their children. All of them sound relaxed, happy and successful.
The individuals profiled by The Guardian all have a spirit of adventure and have been very planful in making their escape from the workaday world. Some, like Julian Pittam, a former partner in a financial research firm, surely have money stashed away from more lucrative prior careers. But it’s hard not to envy old Julian (and the others) a bit. “I’ve got an office that’s away from the house,” he says, “But in summer, without wishing to sound smug, I find myself by the pool with the laptop.” (That house, by the way, is in Ibiza, Spain.)
But even if the reality of a more typical portfolio life isn’t as glamorous as those aspirational lifestyles portrayed in The Guardian, and even if economists and labor lawyers rail against the dangers the gig economy holds for workers, it’s hard to deny its basic appeal. Even after spending an exhausting day picking up gigs, one of the workers profiled in the Times says, “I like my freedom.”
Have you read these pieces? Do you think the free agent lifestyle represents aspiration or desperation?