Over the course of history, our relationship with work has shifted, back and forth, between three basic levels:
- An employee is dependent upon their employer. They have minimal freedom and maximum structure, with appropriate tradeoffs.
- We tend to define the alternative as the independent workforce, whose members are entirely responsible for taking care of themselves, also with corresponding tradeoffs.
- In between is an interdependent workforce, whose members are individually autonomous, but reliant upon and contributing toward a larger ecosystem.
When we built the supply chains of the 20th century, we leaned hard on a culture of a dependent workforce. We built big businesses and big skyscrapers and centralized management, growing and refining hierarchies that maximized our ability to produce products efficiently. In exchange, employers offered employees consistent salaries, the promise of regular pay raises, retirement plans, health care, and most importantly, job security to anyone who’d work hard and remain faithful.
Now, as the primacy of that model fades in favor of a more fluid, creative economy, people are increasingly breaking out into independent work relationships– freelancing, contracting, small business– where both the power and the responsibility rests entirely in the hands of the individual.
Neither model, however, is perfect. Both come with steep tradeoffs. Complete dependence upon one employer to do one job can lead to monotony, powerlessness, feelings of being held back, and vulnerability to the ever-present spectre of layoffs. Having everything handled for you makes life a lot easier to manage, but it also means you’ve got little say in the matter and little control over your destiny.
Shedding the shackles of employed life is liberating, but it’s not long before you realize just how many things an employer did for you that you must now handle for yourself. Beyond the obvious– taxes, insurance, a place to work, a consistent income– are deeper missing structures: accountability, tracking of progress, even a clear start and end time for your workday.
In short, both are extremes, and extremes are by definition never ideal. As more and more people move between these extremes, however, we find a growing middle. Employers are giving employees more flexibility to choose how and when and where they work. Independents are banding together and forming communities to share resources and support one another.
The growing middle ground is one of an interdependent workforce, one which balances autonomy with structure; freedom with support. This model gives people the ability to define how they work in a way that permits them to seek fulfillment of their human potential, while still leaning on support systems for those things which they would have difficulty managing on their own.
This model gives people the ability to find security in developing skills at a valuable craft without having to be too dependent upon one entity as the provider who might pull the rug out at any time. This model is predicated on one’s ability to produce real value, not just to show up and do the minimum necessary to keep the boss happy.
And it’s very far from complete.
We have a chance to build better ways to support each other as we each find our way to the middle. This is why I felt so passionate about helping to build a coworking space, and why I care so much about helping others not just do the same, but do better.
And we have a long way to go. I want to do more.