Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

My good friend and former co-worker, Kristin Wolff, points out that, in today’s world, where technology reigns supreme and the economy remains relatively volatile, there has been a splintering of the traditional concepts of work and labor market. One outcome is the emergence of a non-traditional employment concept of she calls “unjobs.”

What is an ‘unjob?’

“Unjobs” include self-employment, gigs/project-based work, work traded for good or service (bartering), and even jobs tied to the informal economy/underground, like selling items on e-bay or providing unlicensed child care. Ultimately, Wolff says, “unjobs” generate an income for individuals, build their experience towards some kind of career, and/or allow them to be productive in some way that adds value. (Daniel Pink also has shed light on this phenomenon in his book, Free Agent Nation.)

Who participates in ‘unjobs?’

Many people have unjobs, for example, young people recently coming out of high school or emerging from college. In Southeast Michigan, nearly 30 percent of young people are unemployed, a rate higher than any large metropolitan area in the nation. These individuals struggle to find traditional employment opportunities but have a wealth of talent to offer. As their job searches turn up short, they seek to grow their skills in other ways, taking on ad hoc projects or acting as freelancers (e.g., app development or even babysitting) to grow and sharpen their skills.

Members of the creative and entrepreneurial community also fall frequently into the unjob category, participating in art collectives or co-operative work environments, shared creative spaces, business incubators, and co-labs. (Of course, many prefer working out of their bedrooms, garages and basements.)

The underemployed and long-term unemployed, stay-at-home moms and retirees, are other prime holders of “unjobs.” These individuals want to work more than they can in the formal market or want the flexibility of an alternative work environment, and so they create their own opportunities (or share them with others, in the case of co-working).

Contract and freelance workers — members of the 1099 economy — also fit into the “unjob” category. Unlike an employee, an independent contractor does not work regularly for an employer but works as and when required. They get paid on a freelance basis, whether through a company or franchise that they own themselves or through an umbrella company, like a staffing agency or firm.

How many people have unjobs?

Because of the informal nature of the unjob market, it is difficult to count who works in it, but there are some leading indicators that the number of unjobs is growing. In 2012 the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metropolitan statistical area was home to 127,232 self-employed, 1099 workers. From 2008-2012, the percentage of 1099s climbed 5 percent, a growth rate ranked 10th among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Some metro areas have seen growth in these arrangements as high as 12 percent to 15 percent.

Another way to track the emergence of the unjob market is through shopping patterns. According to Bernard Baumohl, in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, retail sales have outpaced gains in reported income for almost four years (Baumohl is chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group). He speculates that the cause is a “much larger than expected underground economy” that is spending its hard-earned cash on retail goods and services.

What trends are unfolding because of unjobs?

One of the more ironic outcomes of the growing unjob market is that many people have garnered traditional jobs trying to organize them. For example, there are 177 unique temporary/contract service agencies in Southeast Michigan trying to link freelance and contract workers to various forms of paid work.

Meanwhile, initiatives like the Freelancers Union are trying to ensure a more supportive environment for these workers. They have formed associations for freelance/contract workers to help ensure their access to benefits like professional development opportunities, health care, and retirement plans. Such unions legally cannot move into collective bargaining, however, because their members are not employees.

And, of course, where else would an unjobber prefer to continually upgrade their skills and knowledge but in an uncollege? Just as work environments and opportunities are becoming increasingly flexible, so too are the methods for fine-tuning their talent. Participation in online colleges and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is becoming increasingly popular among these workers, once again, because of their easy availability and relative low (or no) cost.

Another trend stemming from the growth of the unjob market is companies’ efforts to create more flexibility in the work place. Part of the appeal of those willingly pursuing unjobs is that they can work when and how they please, and they do not have to sacrifice potentially big payouts by turning over profits on projects made possible only by their own unique talents. As a result, to attract these workers to the formal labor market, companies are looking more at flexible work arrangements, formal policies that allow staff to flex their creativity during work hours, and less stringent non-compete practices that allow work on independent gigs.

Despite these trends, it is important to remember that unjobs are diverse in nature, ranging greatly in the type of work, payouts and arrangements they encompass. According to a recent survey of Freelancers Union members, 58 percent earn less than $50,000/year and 29 percent earn less than $25,000/year. This compares to roughly 12 percent of members who received food stamps during the recession, despite being college graduates in their 30s and 40s.

The bottom line

The reality, reminds Wolff, is that unjobs will not replace traditional employment, but they have shifted the labor market. We live in an age when anyone with $10 and a laptop can be their own boss: as such, parents, spouses and friends should not be surprised when their loved ones announce that they “just got an unjob.”

Of course, it is preferable that assuming an unjob is a matter of choice, but even when it is not, unjobs offer an overlay of security that many individuals might not otherwise have. As this trend unfolds in Southeast Michigan, it is important to think about how we can support those in the unjob market—whether by circumstance, choice, or employer business model—so that they too can access many of the benefits that participation in the traditional work place brings.


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