More and more workers are 'freelancing' today than ever before. On a recent transatlantic flight, I found myself reading an interesting business class magazine that rehashed the old Elephant and the Flea dynamic of giant corporations versus independent-contractors and tiny single-person businesses. Charles Handy may have been writing almost a decade ago now, but the ex-oil man-turned best-selling author had an almost prescient view of the evolving economy.
The elephants – or established corporations – still steer the economy and tend to be largely dismissive of the fleas. The fleas – small-scale entrepreneurs or heroic multi-taskers that work independently and fiercely – respond directly to demand and opportunity. As the economy has evolved, fleas are now on the rise. According to a recent CNN Money article, freelance professionals now make up more than a quarter of the US working population.
Economically speaking, there are opportunities and hazards in both cases. Elephants still need to figure out ways to sustain and grow themselves while maintaining personal relationships and encouraging innovation. Unfortunately, to survive in a challenging economic landscape, this often means taking advantage of the fleas, as evidenced by the rise of the permanent temporary workforce. An increasing number of people are working in the capacity of permanent workers without any of the benefits or certainty, both at entry and advanced levels.
For fleas, the problem is still communication. Independent contractors need to find better ways to cooperate with each other across their disparate industries. While one flea can hardly gain the attention of an elephant, a veritable legion of fleas can definitely hold more sway (or at the very least make the elephant itch considerably.)
With the advent of organizations like the Freelancers Union, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that works to connect fleas with other fleas to create the critical mass necessary to shape policy and offer independent workers the same level of protection and assurances that full-time workers once enjoyed, we are definitely making significant strides towards cooperation. Union members in New York are eligible for health insurance, and a number of other benefits at an affordable rate. Members on the west coast, while not yet eligible for health coverage, can still access dental, disability, and life insurance.
For fleas with no other safety net, this type of a national resource is indispensable. And this type of representation is what’s needed to allow fleas to be heard by the elephants at the national level. Perhaps ‘fight’ is a misnomer. It’s not really a battle against the elephants, but rather a struggle to be heard. A healthy economy should support both elephants and fleas, allowing for a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship between them.
So what do fellow small business fleas out there think about the noble fight for fleadom? What other resources have you heard about?