In the 19th century story of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, one of the characters refers to his army of mercenaries as “free lancers,” perhaps a reference to the fact that their weapons were available to the highest bidder. Today’s freelancers probably aren’t sell-swords (for the most part), but they do sell their skills and services. However, with the consistent growth in Americans who identify as freelancers, we find ourselves on the precipice of rediscovering the not-so-distant past.
Before 1900, Most Americans Were Freelancers
In the 19th century, finding Americans who were employed exclusively by one person or company was much harder than in the 20th century. In fact, in 1860, approximately 80% of Americans were self-employed in some form or fashion. The massive companies that came along with the Industrial Revolution simply did not exist yet.
These early freelancers took on odd jobs to make ends meet, performing many roles for many companies or individuals. This could include helping a farmer with a harvest, supplying game to another family, or delivering supplies to a nearby town. These people used their skills to generate enough income to survive, and this income often fluctuated based on the time of year.
The Masses Move to the Office
It wasn’t until the 20th century, with the Industrial Revolution and the post-World War II economic boom, when the single-employer model became widespread. Suddenly, it became respectable to work in an office and the majority of Americans spent their entire career working for one employer. This led to a period of prosperity hitherto almost unknown for most Americans, and created opportunities for the middle class to actually achieve the American Dream.
The cracks in this model started appearing in the 70s with recessions, increased competition, and companies trying to trim their budgets. Where many companies provided pensions in the mid-1900s, these generous retirement plans became rarer. Likewise, employees found themselves being laid off in the constant race to cut costs and increase profits.
The advent of the microprocessor in 1971 ushered in the Digital Revolution and unleashed a wave of disruptive changes that would affect almost all aspects of human life and industry. Digital technologies turned the cracks into gaping holes that would alter not only the course of work, but also the nature of work itself. Over the past forty years, the workforce has been dynamically changed by computers and the Internet. Coupled with the uncertainty associated with working for one employer, the workforce was ready for another massive change by the 90s.
Blasting Forward… to the Past
With corporations slimming down and a newfound emphasis on work-life balance, many workers have found freedom and purpose in a surprisingly archaic employment model — freelancing. Now, though, people aren’t venturing to nearby farms for work. Instead, they’re picking up jobs online and working with companies eager to outsource specialized labor.
The Digital Revolution essentially allowed this. With the digitalization of the economy, companies were genuinely able to strip business processes into their component parts. These parts could then be outsourced to contractors and companies could pay less because they didn’t have to provide benefits and other compensation anymore.
With that, the table was set for another workforce migration. Corporations weren’t the only ones who won from this new arrangement. Workers who were hungry to spend less time at work and more time with their family could suddenly work from anywhere. All they needed was a high-speed Internet connection and a computer.
All of these factors played a role in the exponential increase in American freelancers. In the 70s, freelancing was uncommon, to say the least. That number has exploded, with about 50% of Americans calling themselves freelancers. This number is projected to continue to grow in the next decade. We’re truly seeing a re-emergence of a lifestyle that really hasn’t been seen since the 19th century.
To the Winners Go the Spoils
This new environment won’t be for everyone but, rather, for those who know how to play the game. More recent generations, who have grown up with technology and are more comfortable with the tools that enable modern freelancing, will likely have an easier time adapting.
The rewards for adapting to the modern work environment include:
High potential earnings.
A variety of assignments and skills to be developed.
The potential to build a personal brand.
Freelancers, in the modern-day, are their own product. Over time, their networks enable them to build and scale their content outside their freelance work. The freelancer, in essence, becomes their own brand. And in this new yet familiar world, the possibilities are almost endless.