The year of the self-employed

Is the workplace revolution and the rise of the temp at last about to take place after the lost years of the 1990s?

Call them free agents, the self-managed workforce, freelancers, temps, or simply the self-employed: no small group of workers has had more attention lavished on them by business gurus in the past decade.

Dozens of lapel-mikes have boomed forth the emergence of the free worker as a social phenomenon. A torrent of books has prophesied how employers will become dependent on them, and would have to learn how to handle their whims, their independence, their, you know… like… creativity. In fact, it is hard to think of a subject on which management writers have made more heroic fools of themselves.

The problem was the official statistics just wouldn’t do what they wanted. The Government’s Labour Force Survey showed that at the end of 2002, 2.4 million people were full-time self-employed. Ten years earlier, the figure had been 2.6 million, having peaked in 1990. Contrary to expectations, over the late 1990s traditional ’employee’ positions had actually undergone a striking boom (see table). And there was a further difficulty: since 1997, temporary workers, the sans-culotte of the flexible work revolution, had also been decreasing.

Such facts were hard to square with what one might read in Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs (1994); Britain in 2010: The New Business Landscape (2000); The Empty Raincoat (1994); The Age of Unreason (1995); Most Wanted: The Quiet Birth of the Free Worker (2000); Free Agent Nation (2001)É the list goes on.

Yet the message was uniform: ‘many people’ were deciding they were no good at playing politics and sitting in silly meetings, and aspired to a more varied life doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Work, known down the ages as a primal curse or sacred duty by everyone from St Benedict to Karl Marx, was evolving into something unknown, edgy and exciting – a freelance thing, a lifestyle thing.

The most compelling account came, perhaps, from Charles Handy. In spookily titled books, he argued that employers would be less willing to pay salaries to staff when they could pay fees to contractors. He envisioned the emergence of “the shamrock organisation”, a core of essential staff flanked by freelancers and part-timers. Ideally, we should no longer think of companies as providers of jobs, but as “communities of human endeavour” to which we might be able to hawk a few skills. Ubiquitous low-brow theorists duly piled in after him.

What many writers ought to have made clearer, of course, was that they meant ‘a few people’ – friends of the author, possibly, white-collar down-shifters, knowledge workers, the footloose bourgeoisie. And maybe within this group there were one or two who had the luxury of ‘hiring’ their employers, like a princess choosing a suitor.

But generally, the trend was inching in the other direction. Changes to the tax system in the 1990s made self-employment a less attractive scam for keeping blue-collar workers in industries such as construction and transport off the books. But management writers have never been interested in them. Indeed, I have often wondered whether the gurus’ lopsided view of work was symptomatic of an absent-minded form of class hatred. Forget the proles. It is far more fun to extrapolate the experiences of a small elite into a fully-blown zeitgeist.

And now, having said all that, it is time for those of us who doubted the gurus’ familiarity with the Office of National Statistics to concede a humbling point. 2003 has been an excellent year for anyone convinced of our freelance destiny. Last year, self-employment jumped dramatically by 8.9 per cent – for both men and women, full-time and part-time, across a broad range of occupations. Banking, finance, IT and the professions all saw noteworthy increases. Yet the growth went wider. As well as a rise among skilled trades such as construction, December’s Labour Market Trends, the official employment digest, also highlights some peculiar mutations: for instance, 15,000 more taxi drivers and chauffeurs, 7,000 more childminders, and 9,000 more farmers.

Explaining such figures is not easy. On the whole, management writers are a relentlessly optimistic, rather credulous breed who like to believe that choice has a starring role in working life. They argue that people choose to opt out of traditional work patterns. Statisticians, a gloomier bunch, schooled in the mischievous ways of the hidden hand, tend to have greater faith in the explanatory power of a lack of choice. The downturn is a likelier reason, they believe. Labour Market Trends speculates: “The increase seen in financial and investment analysts and advisers broadly seems to support media stories about City job losses leading to people moving into self-employment.”

This makes 2004 the litmus test for self-employment. If by the end of this year there has been a further significant, broadly-based rise in the number of self-employed people, then we will have to say that the era of the free agent may finally be beginning – rather later than planned.

True, 3.33 million self-employed (full-time and part-time) is not a huge number set against 24.5 million employees. It is not enough to merit the term ‘phenomenon’. But it is enough to be interested and enough to make us doubters a little less sure of ourselves.

“A marked feature of the labour market over the next decade will be the growth of self-employment,” foretold Richard Scase in Britain in 2010, published in 2000. We shall see.

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