Insights from Australian at the forefront of the freelance economy

He is not an old fellow, a mere 45, but Matt Barrie has seen our concepts of careers change and change and change.

His grandfather, for instance, would have taken a job and aimed to stay with it until retirement.

His father would have thought of taking a job for 20 years and then starting a business to spend the second half of his career.

Barrie thinks of jobs in terms of five-to-10-year periods.

The generation that follows him looks at jobs in two-year cycles.

Then there are the millennials, for whom there is even less permanence but the familiarity – preferred or not – of job-hopping and freelance work. The changes are partly practical, partly attitudinal, partly economical, but they remind us of the grand challenge as a society to shift policy to accommodate emerging values about work and its role in shaping identity.

Barrie, an Australian tech entrepreneur, is CEO of the giant job board Freelancer.com, a rich trove of global opportunities that has about 30 million users worldwide. He is at ground zero on the gig economy, and while it’s not always a pretty vista, he is effusive about its qualities.

I spent time with him last week for our daily podcast at Business in Vancouver (it’s online at biv.com). His perspective offered a vector into the world that ranges from side hustles to full-time project-based toil.

Barrie believes the corporate world has undertaken a seismic shift in only the last two years in the tension between embracing and repelling the concept of freelance labour. Until recently he would take meetings with firms that would look to validate their fears of freelancing – security clearances, cultural differences, legal worries, education standards and the like – but now he notices a vastly more positive, proactive climate.

He argues that this is the world we want more of, a flexible context for work that is enabled by digital technology to permit almost anything to be done from almost anywhere. It’s a context of far less exclusion and far more opportunity.

There are healthy questions to consider, among them concerns of exploitation and what if anything can be done when offshore expertise usurps the local worker.

Barrie’s service isn’t entirely agnostic. It won’t undercut labour laws in matching employers and workers. It encourages freelancers to be wise about their value and charge sufficiently to take care of any medical or other benefits. While there are easily found online critiques of the model he touts, these feel more attached to a nostalgic wish of greater security than missives about the burgeoning norm.

We know our market has a talent challenge (our issue this week explores this at length), and we are not alone. But the old-style approach of fashioning a job description, commissioning a recruitment firm, reviewing resumés to create a short list of applicants, spending time and perhaps money interviewing the finalists, incentivizing them to move, expending effort to train them, providing golden handcuffs to retain, then praying for a lengthy and productive contribution … well, that’s not the deal as much anymore.

If you Google “gig economy,” “policy” and “Canada,” you will get little else but a batch of very dire think pieces by economists and labour specialists on how we have not got ready for what has already hit us. About one-quarter of our labour force is in this “non-traditional” category, mainly because of lack of choice, but our social-insurance programs are caught in a time warp. Little is happening to help with the hand-wringing.

In watching the world the way he does, Barrie has concluded we are headed in the next decade for half of all work freelanced. Older workers will keep a hand in their fields, stay-at-home parents will find more ways to juggle family with enterprise, younger people will want to blend their expertise with the experiences of travel – any number of circumstances, now that technology avails it, are possible.

His advice to the worker: don’t sell yourself short, charge enough to weather the rainy day and be the “master of your destiny.” 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.