The New Economy of Contingent Workers: Will it Work for You?


Last week Doris wrote about the Hollywood Project Model of work and how the economy is changing from workers who are “permanently” employed to those who are brought in to add experience, expertise, and intellectual power to specific projects. A new genre of “temporary” employment agencies for C suite types are popping up everywhere. These agencies point to the advantages of project-based work, and there are many, but of course they are vested in this new system.

Doris and I have been independent contractors for a long time now. There are many advantages to this: flexible schedule, work at home, no commute, interesting and varied work. There are also disadvantages, of course: no base salary, health care plans, matched retirement accounts. Our reputations are the work we have done with clients, and their recommendations about our work. No formal performance reviews, ladders to climb up the organizational structure, or title and salary steps.

We are reading more articles lately on not only the changing nature of work, but also the changing nature of work hours and the impact on family structures and quality of life. Doris’s blog states:

The Accenture report authors point to workers driving much of this change.  The authors attribute the growth in workers choosing short-term work over employment because it is more flexible, offers a wider range of skill and knowledge building projects, and is just as lucrative if not more so than traditional employment. They also acknowledge the allure of short-term contracts for retiring baby boomers, millennials, and two-income households that might want to achieve a different balance of work and family life.  

In the New York Times this week, The 24/7 Work Culture’s Toll on Family’s and Gender Equality, Claire Cain Miller reported on a new study that will be published as part of Harvard Business School’s new gender initiative. Our collective digital usage is up, and since we are connected all the time we are available to clients, bosses, and coworkers all the time. Our digital usage keeps going up, but the hours in the day certainly does not.

from eMarketer, March 2014

from eMarketer, March 2014

We are working longer hours with higher expectations of the quality of the work (view this interview with Robin Ely, one of the researchers of the study and the person heading up Harvard’s gender initiative).The higher you are on the educational and economic ladder, the more hours you will work. Vacations, weekends, family outings and activities are interrupted by work emails, texts, calls, etc. Does this cartoon look familiar?



We also don’t unplug. This chart shows that as of July 2014, only 20% of us unplug from all digital devices daily.

from We Are Social:

Connections are wonderful, but being on call for work 24/7 takes a toll for both men and women. Although hired by a company to uncover what policies and practices needed to be in place to promote women, the researchers found that both men and women equally identified the work hours as a major impact on family and life. A March 2013 Pew Research report, Modern Parenthood, verifies this – 50% of working fathers and 56% of working mothers found the work-family balance challenging.

Flex time, job sharing, and other ways of handling work and family are in place in the company studied, but the consequences for women who took advantage of these options are dire. Career advancement is impacted, as flex time is viewed as a lack of commitment to work. Men are better at finding strategies that “fly under the radar” as Robin Ely says, and don’t impact their career path. The researchers identified the long hours of work as the major reason for work dissatisfaction for both genders, but the culture of viewing women differently than men in regards to handling the long hours was the real culprit for their lack of promotion. When men left the office early, it was assumed they were meeting a client. When women left the office early, it was assumed they were going home.

Needless to say, companies are not going to be happy with this assessment and institute less hours of work. In fact, the article describes the firm’s reaction to the research findings:

The researchers said that when they told the consulting firm they had diagnosed a bigger problem than a lack of family-friendly policies for women — that long hours were taking a toll on both men and women — the firm rejected that conclusion. The firm’s representatives said the goal was to focus only on policies for women, and that men were largely immune to these issues.

The new economy of contingent workers could help alleviate the long working hours for those who are highly educated and have marketable skills. The Modern Parenthood report found that for single women who were on the low economic and educational scale, full time work was a priority and necessity. For those on the upper end of the economic and/or educational spectrum and married, part-time work was preferred while their children were young.

Economic decisions are key to being able to take advantage of contract work. In his article in the Atlantic from March 2013, Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Equality, Stephen Marche takes issue with the Lean In philosophy from Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name. To him, most people and couples make decisions about work based on their economic situation, not just career pathways or making sure they are getting into the C suite.

photo courtesy of:

In his case, the decision to leave his tenure-track faculty position and move back to Canada (he and his wife are Canadian) was because his wife was going to have a salary twice the amount of his, his child would have affordable, quality day care, and he could develop, and has developed, a free-lance career as a writer. He is able to pick his child up at the end of the day from daycare, spend time with him when his wife works late, and does not have to worry about health care costs.

His point is that the decision was based on all these factors, not just his wife’s or his career. He advocates everyone, both men and women alike, demand a shift toward family-friendly and human-friendly work policies so that both men and women can be equal partners in their family life, what ever it looks like.

Will the new contingency workforce be a good or imperfect fit for you as we move from looking for a job to looking for work? According to the sources above, it will depend on your educational level, marketable skills, other household income, age, and what your economic situation requires. Time to upgrade your skills (think online at the Women’s Learning Studio), showcase your accomplishments as a project and team member or leader, and forge ahead.

What is your experience with contract or contingency work? What are you finding out there in the workforce? What questions or comments do you have about it all?

Featured image courtesy of The Blunt Bean Counter Blog:

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] studies, Lisa and I are studying how the world of work is changing. We wrote about it here, here, and here. Our founding partner Lyn Boyer and I have also written about the value of projects for […]

  2. […] obsolete. (See our blogs on the freelance economy: BYOD (+SD) to freelance where and when you want; The new economy of contingent workers – will it work for you?; Hollywood Project model: new work […]

  3. […] new platforms acting as “match-makers” for project-based workers and companies; future worker skills and abilities. As if this was not enough change, the two most recent issues of the Harvard Business […]

  4. […] income-earning merits of Uber and similar transactional “job” exchanges (see our recent posts here and here), I am attracted to Cowen’s supposition that workers who will benefit most from the […]

  5. […] members wish to keep earning income. As a result, our recent “Hollywood Project Model” and “The New Economy of Contingent Workers” blog posts intrigued ECO members. The posts affirmed the shift in the workforce from full-time, […]

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