The Changing Future of Work Revisited

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Almost two years ago I wrote a blog on how the workplace for which we are charged with preparing today’s students is changing (The Future May Not Be What It Used to Be). The blog discussed the results of three studies showing a dramatic shift toward freelance and contracted work as we emerged from the recession at the beginning of this decade. The research showed a doubling of freelance and contracted workers between 2005 and 2015 and predicted rapid growth for the foreseeable future. In fact, one of the studies by professors at Harvard and Princeton predicted that 50% of the American workforce would be engaged in freelance, contracted, and temporary work within the next decade.

Now, an updated survey by Upwork and Freelancer’s Union, Freelancing in America, has found that the portion of American workers engaged in freelance and similar work has already reached 35%, or 57 million workers, up from 10% in 2005. The good news about this trend is that it provides significant flexibility to workers regarding when and with whom they will work. It also opens the door to workers who may not be able to perform in traditional work environments because of personal or health issues. Further, freelance work is often tied to technology and can be done remotely, allowing businesses to have access to talent and skills that might not be available locally.

However, this dramatic shift in how work is performed by a large portion of workers is too often unnoticed and ignored by those who are responsible for preparing today’s students for their future. To some extent this situation is not surprising as most jobs in education and the experience of educators tend to be more traditional in nature, including an ongoing contract for work with set compensation and benefits and employer-provided supervision.

Further, the design of the learning experience in most schools reflects traditional workplace conditions. Employers decide what and how work will be done. Employers provide supervision and evaluation of work as it is performed. Employers decide when additional learning and skill upgrades are needed. Employers take responsibility for developing business plans and ensuring business viability. These conditions are typically not present in the freelance and contract employment world.

In freelance work, workers must decide what work to do and how to do it. They must take responsibility for the consistent quality of the work they do, or they will not continue to work. Workers need to identify where and when to update skills and engage in new learning to stay current and competitive. They must also take responsibility for developing and operating a business, even if they work alone.

How urgent is the need to change the experience of learners to prepare them for this new world of work? The Freelancing in America survey found that almost 90% of the more than 6,000 freelancers they surveyed wished their education had better prepared them for the work environment in which they find themselves.  

Making this challenge even more urgent is the demographic profile of those who are engaging in and planning a career in freelance work. It happens that younger workers are more likely to be doing freelance work than their older counterparts. More than 50% of Gen Z professionals are doing at least some contract or freelance work according to the Freelancing in America survey. This compares to around 30% of baby boomers and Gen Xers and 40% of millennials.

The bottom line is that a large portion of today’s students will launch and build their careers doing freelance and contract work. Yet, our education system is designed to prepare them for a traditional work environment. We can no longer ignore the needs of these learners and the growing needs of our economy to have workers prepared for success in this type of work.

What is your school doing to prepare students to identify their learning needs and decide what skills to develop? How are students learning to take responsibility for the quality of their work? To what extent are they learning to start and operate a business on their own?

Resources:

Katz, L. F., & Krueger, A. B. (2018, December 19). The rise and nature of alternative work arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0019793918820008

Noguchi, Y. (2018, January 22). Freelanced: The rise of the contract workforce. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/01/22/578825135/rise-of-the-contract-workers-work-is-different-now

NPR/Marist Poll Results January 2018: Picture of Work: http://maristpoll.marist.edu/nprmarist-poll-results-january-2018-picture-of-work

Upwork and Freelancers Union. (October 3, 2019) Sixth Annual “Freelancing in America” survey. https://www.upwork.com/i/freelancing-in-america/2019/

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