Viewpoint: The economy, it is a-changin’
Two recent reports on the state of mind of the American workforce should get the attention of local government policymakers. The Conference Board recently released a report entitled, “I Can’t Get No . . . Job Satisfaction,” which finds that a paltry 45 percent of Americans are satisfied in their work, which is the lowest level in more than 22 years. That report comes just three months after the Pew Research Center offered its own country-ballad-titled report, “Take This Job and Love It,” detailing how 95 percent of Americans are completely or mostly satisfied with their work.
What can explain the stark difference? The Pew Center focused on the self-employed and the growing number of Americans who are consulting, freelancing and starting their own businesses. As a group, those workers are profoundly happier than the cubicle warriors who make their living working for someone else. Notably, their increased happiness is not a result of money. In fact, the median salary for the self-employed is basically the same as those who work for traditional employers. Rather, the self-employed are happier and more satisfied because of the lifestyle and psychologically rewarding aspects of their work.
It is also a group that gets remarkably little attention from local economic development professionals. They work out of their homes and coffee shops. There is no professional association speaking on their behalf in council meetings. But, they soon will be a large portion of the workforce and are the key to building a sustainable local economy.
Soon, nearly everyone will be self-employed. That shift is being driven by technology, globalized competition and a renewed emphasis — led by Generation X and Yer’s — on lifestyle, work-life balance and good old-fashioned sanity. At the same time, corporations are shrinking and becoming leaner, keeping a core of employees to conduct critical tasks, and outsourcing and crowd-sourcing everything else.
Companies, such as Elance, 99designs.com and Live Ops, are emerging to provide a platform for the trend. Through those sites, hundreds of thousands of people work for employers they will never meet. Amateurs compete head-to-head with seasoned professionals. People work two hours a day or 20 hours a day depending on their skills and their schedules.
The trend has proven positives, as the Pew report explains. But, without attention and sound policy from local governments, the self-employed could soon join the ranks of the unhappy and less economically productive. In previous economic shifts, the government built the necessary infrastructure and implemented policies to support the ideal workforce (think roads, research parks, and regulation to maximize opportunities and protect quality of life). We now need to do the same for the self-employed.
Currently, local economic development policies almost exclusively favor the recruitment and retention of traditional large-footprint companies instead of the aggregation and support of independent creative-class professionals. Local governments spend millions of dollars — and incur all sorts of social and environmental effects — to lure companies and jobs to their town, only to watch those jobs melt away when economic times get hard. Governments need to give up on attracting one 200-employee company to their towns. Instead, they need to create the infrastructure for 200 one-person companies through the establishment of co-working spaces, redesigned commercial office buildings, and collaborating with educational institutions to provide job training, microloans and collaborative marketing.
Here’s an insidiously indicative example. Local zoning regulations often prohibit people from operating one-person businesses out of their homes, sometimes levying petty fines when they ought to be offering incentives. Clearly, the policies that governed the past 100 years of work will not be effective in governing the next 100 years.
Ryan Coonerty is the vice mayor of Santa Cruz, Calif. Jeremy Neuner is the former economic development manager for Santa Cruz. Together, they founded NextSpace Coworking + Innovation.