The Rise of the “Solo Economy” — What it Means for Workers and Credentials

Three people working together around a computer and tablet

53 million. This number might surprise you – I know it got my attention. That’s the number of people in the US who are already working independently, as freelancers, indie professionals, creatives, and free agents (Freelancers Union, n.d.). And this number is expected to grow to more than 50% of America’s workforce over the next decade. For this population, soon to be the majority of American workers, work is no longer a place they go; work is what they do.

Why is the American workforce migrating out of their cubicle walls and into more flexible models of career management? What are the characteristics of the emerging solo workforce, and what are the implications of solo work life for cities, institutions, and for learning credentials? As a result of this shift, what new models for learning, up-skilling, and reinvention must solo workers master to thrive?

To learn more, we spoke with Michael Hopkins, founding partner and editorial director of The Solo Project. Launched by the people who helped create and lead the Inc. Magazine and Fast Company brands, The Solo Project provides inspiration, ideas, tools, and community for soloists in the United States.

Why are soloists emerging?

One of the very first questions we asked Michael was why, exactly, is the solo economy emerging in the first place? And secondly, why is the solo economy growing so quickly?

“Three primary drivers are behind this shift in the way individuals and corporations approach work,” Hopkins explained.

  1. Technology and tools now enable work to be disaggregated and done anywhere, anytime.
  2. Project-based work is growing, and provides ample opportunities for specialized talent to jump in and do what they do best.
  3. The desire for a new relationship with work – one that is balanced by a sense of fulfillment and time management.

While the change impact of new technology and tools is probably recognized by most of us, the other two drivers might be less familiar. We asked Michael to explain how project-based work impacts the overall landscape of the economy.

“Increasingly, both inside and outside corporations work is being organized as projects, not jobs,” Hopkins said. “The projects are finite, tackled by teams that form up and later disband. The people who work on these projects come and go, and they often include contractors, consultants, and freelancers—soloists, in other words.”

It makes sense that corporations are gravitating toward the project approach for several powerful reasons: improved strategic flexibility and speed are demanded by fast-changing market forces; reduced overhead, which in turn translates into decreased financial risk.

The third driver, the idea of work fulfillment and time management, is often misunderstood as the simple desire for better work-life balance. But there’s more to it. Hopkins points to a 2014 New York Times essay which summarized recent research—including a Gallup survey stating that just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work.

“For most of us,” continued Hopkins, “work is too often a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.” However, it is now more possible than ever to craft independent work lives of our own, thanks to the same technological and project-work drivers Hopkins outlined earlier.

Are we ready for a workforce that has more and more independents in it?

According to Hopkins, the short answer is, “No.” Cities and communities have been organized for a century around the presumption that we are all employees, getting paychecks. Education is about preparing us to be hired. Policy and economic development is about creating jobs. Banks give us mortgages based on our W-2s. But in the future, city economies will rise or fall based not on how well they produce jobs, but on how well they foster work. It’s not a subtle difference. We need to understand how to help soloists and corporations work synergistically together, how to prepare our citizens for a life in which they will have to create their own economic security, and how communities can build the new infrastructure that a world-class solo workforce needs.

Implications of the Soloist Economy

  • As the number of project-based interactions grows, friction arises across the emerging labor economy.
  • Solo workers will need to get credit for what they know and what they have done, and skill-up to meet the changing requirements of every new project.
  • Employers and project leaders need more efficient ways to communicate about the know-how and expertise they need – and their requirements are changing faster than ever, from job to job, project to project.
  • Project leaders will need access to trustworthy information about which soloists can do what types of work and who possesses what skills.
  • Employers and/or companies commissioning projects will need to access pools of specialized knowledge and skills.

An emerging solution

The constant churn of project-based work means that the friction points of assembling teams are encountered more and more frequently. To make this new economy work—for companies and for individuals alike—it’s becoming critical to build trust networks around what each team and each worker knows, and what he or she can do. We need to make each person’s abilities and achievements visible and accessible in a transparent, trustworthy way to find new work, and to more efficiently point them toward further learning and reskilling opportunities.

Verified digital badges can provide an important part of the solution. Badges are standardized, learner-controlled, open credentials for recognizing, managing and sharing professional competencies, learning achievements, and work experiences in the digital world.  

Alternative learning credentials including college coursework, self-directed learning experiences, career training, and continuing education programs can play a powerful role in defining and articulating solo workers’ capabilities. Already badges that represent these credentials are serving an important purpose in fostering trust between solo workers, employers, and project teams because they convey skill transparency and deliver seamless verification of capabilities.

A decade from now, when solo workers comprise the majority of the American workforce, I think it will be common for all of us to point to digital credentials and badges as a better way to talk about our own expertise and the know-how of others. Trusted digital credentials will strengthen the new economy by removing some of the high-frequency friction and inefficiencies of project work. Digital, verifiable credentials owned by each worker will ease employer uncertainty while forming project teams. And at the same time, badges will help each of us to identify relevant new work projects and navigate toward just-in-time learning opportunities.

 

Reference:

Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk. (n.d.). Freelancing in America: A national survey of the new workforce. [Independent Report] Retrieved from https://fu-web-storage-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/content/filer_public/7c/45/7c457488-0740-4bc4-ae45-0aa60daac531/freelancinginamerica_report.pdf

 

About the Author
Peter Janzow

Peter Janzow

Peter Janzow is a Business Development Manager in support of Acclaim, an enterprise class badging platform backed by Pearson. Peter has actively contributed to education for many years in roles that include executive management, global market development and entrepreneurship for educational publishing and technology companies.

With a  keen interest in STEM education, Peter continues to work actively in the fields of workforce development, professional credentialing, and engineering education. He is a former Director of the American Society for Engineering Education and has been with Pearson for a total of 18 years over the span of his career.