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The Curve, America Now, 2015 – Indie workers—freelancers, temps, sole proprietors, gig workers, TaskRabbits, Uber drivers, Etsy moms, and more—have the potential to be the most disruptive force in the country. They are set to transform not only the workplace but also the very fabric of massive social institutions, from health care to retirement and even the family structure.

Going Solo

“Work is the most fundamental organizing principle of society. When work changes, everything changes.”

—Diana Rothschild, Founder, NextKids


The independent workforce was once easy to brush aside as a class of people coming off of the recession, waiting for a real job, or edging into retirement. But this once-niche group is tipping to become the mainstream workforce and, in the process, transforming the social infrastructures of America. As Diana Rothschild, the cofounder of NextKids, a San Francisco–based, family-first coworking space, tells us, “Work is the most fundamental organizing principle of society. When work changes, everything changes.” While it’s news to no one that the gray-suited corporate hierarchy is on its way out (one-fifth of Americans go so far as to say that the traditional nine-to-five won’t even exist in 2050), what’s extraordinary is that we’re now seeing the most significant shift in the organization of the workforce since the Industrial Revolution, along with a transformation of the social structures that developed in its wake (unions, cubicle office design, and eventually supercommutes).

The numbers tell the story: The percentage of independent workers in America has surged from just 9% in 1970 to 34% of the workforce today—that’s 53 million Americans—according to the Freelancers Union. And indie work is on the rise: It’s predicted that freelancers will make up 50% of the labor force by 2020. According to our own quantitative study, 79% of 18- to 54-year-olds see working for themselves as the new American dream—and a full two-thirds (66%) of Gen Ys believe they’ll actually achieve that goal in their lifetime (unlike, say, home ownership). This shift will not only change where we get our paychecks from but also the organization of our lives—and society at large. Individuals once beholden to the workplace policies, PTO, and nine-to-five grind of large corporate institutions are now able to organize their “benefits” (necessities for health, sanity, and a good quality of life) however they see fit.

 Almost half (47%) of Americans say that social support systems should be in the hands of individuals rather than the government (37%) or corporations (16%).


One of the driving forces behind this shift toward indie work is the emergence of the sharing economy—including coworking spaces, digital platforms, apps, and software that allow individuals to supersize their resources in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to on their own. It’s an economic transformation that, in a sense, echoes the workforce structure of the 19th century, when we were a nation of farmers and shop owners, each with a trade that could be independently bartered. As the NYU business professor Arun Sundararajan put it: “The sharing economy is taking us back to old market principles and human values that are hardwired into us.” Only now, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are the Uber driver, the Etsy creator, and the tech entrepreneur, and bartering extends well beyond one’s local community.

While it’s hard to predict exactly how this massive shift toward indie work and sharing will play out, it clearly has revolutionary potential beyond just tackling how to get home at 2 a.m. (Uber) or pick up one’s dry cleaning (TaskRabbit). In fact, some of the best-in-class business models of the sharing economy could reshape the social safety nets of America—including child care, health care, retirement, and more—at a time that occasionally feels like the Wild West of a rising workforce.

The Family Office

The American workplace is set up to favor people who prioritize work over family—embarrassingly so. Just consider our abysmal approach to maternity leave: The United States is one of only two countries in the world that don’t have paid maternity leave—the other is Papua New Guinea. So the question is: How will family structure change when work shifts to the indie workforce?

Coworking spaces have exploded across the country, jumping 83% in just one year alone and increasing membership by 117%, according to a study by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. A work model once associated with young, techy guys cranking out code, pulling all-night hackathons, and hosting UX meet-ups is undergoing a profound shift that places family at its core. One notable example is NextKids, a coworking space that layers high-quality child care over what could have otherwise operated as an adult fraternity. Replacing once-hot workplace perks such as nap pods, cereal bars, and Broadway-themed conference rooms (all real things at Google) are early childhood development programs, a compostable diaper service, carpooling, and princess-themed birthday party packages. This new approach is catching on: Mothership HackerMoms in Berkeley, California, and Work and Play in South Orange, New Jersey, also integrate child care into coworking spaces.

65% of 18- to 54-year-olds say that independent workers will be more relevant than corporate employees (35%) by 2025.


Family-centered coworking not only creates an alternative model for people who don’t want to choose between having a family and a career but also fills a very real economic need: It enables moms to get back into the workforce, helps dads play a more active role in parenting, and provides a safety net for children that is cheaper and more appealing than outsourcing to a nine-to-five nanny. It’s easy to see the economic power that would be unleashed by making parents more empowered, effective, and productive.

In fact, the United States, which had one of the top employment rates in the world for women as recently as 1990, has now fallen behind many countries, including Switzerland, Germany, and France in Europe, and Australia, dropping from 74% in 1999 to 69% today. Tina Lee, the founder and CEO of MotherCoders, a nonprofit resource that teaches moms computer programming, has leveraged NextKids to bring in moms while their tots play. She tells us, “There’s been a massive loss of talent from moms not being able to get back into the workforce, but spaces that cater to a really educated group of moms enable them to get back to it.” This sentiment is echoed by Americans who say that more flexibility for working women is the most effective way to close the gender gap, second only to encouraging young girls to enter STEM areas of study (see The Girl Code).

And it’s not just a challenge for women: 37% of nonworking men ages 25 to 54 say that family responsibilities are a reason they are not working, according to a poll by the New York Times, CBS News, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. This issue was the talk of Silicon Valley recently when Patrick Pichette, the CFO of Google, stepped down to focus on his family. President Obama has even weighed in, saying, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is.”

“We will start to weave child care more seamlessly into our workdays in ways that aren’t possible if you are constrained to being at a nonhome place 10 or 12 hours of a day.

—Arun Sundararajan, Professor of Business, New York University

Economics aside, one of the most profound lessons to come out of NextKids has been its surprise ability to attract nonparents who are craving a work culture that prioritizes balance over grind. For workers with kids or without, gone are the days of working until four a.m. to climb the corporate ladder and snag that corner office. As the NextKids cofounder Diana Rothschild explains, “It’s a nice leveler. I’ve had parent and nonparent members tell me that when they walk down the hall past the kids’ room, just seeing the kids playing de-stresses them.” And the integration of child care into coworking spaces may just be the start. It’s not hard to imagine how health care services, sports leagues, travel adventure groups, higher education, shopping, and other amenities that help clientele achieve their own version of work-life balance could also be included. Rothschild reflects, “There is a growing desire by individuals to create a life and a living on their own terms.”


Regardless of where you stand on ObamaCare, the controversial Affordable Care Act, health care is one of the U.S. social institutions most in need of fixing—and three-quarters (77%) of 18- to-54-year-old Americans believe that the rise of independent workers will lead to its radical reconstruction. When you take a step back and look at the state of 21st-century health care, it’s hard to believe that we’re able to call an on-demand car service and be quickly picked up on an unmarked street corner at two in the morning, yet we’re still logging long hours in doctor’s office reception areas and waiting by the phone for physicians to call us back. There has to be a better solution (and while we’re at it, let’s also update Redbook magazine and Muzak).

Cut to the Uber model, a refreshing way to get us out of waiting rooms, insurance hell, and frustrating bureaucracy, and—most importantly—bring attention to people when and where they need it. One of the most inspiring Uber-type health-care solutions we’ve seen to date is Pager, a location-based app that connects doctors with patients for on-demand house calls. (The app was developed by an early Uber engineer, Pager cofounder Oscar Salazar.) Forget clinic hours and wait times: The service is available any time, including nights and weekends, whenever you might need it—starting at $300 per visit. And while insurance companies have a stranglehold on in-network coverage, Pager opens up health-care options. Functioning like a Yelp for doctors, the service allows users to scroll through doctors’ specialties, credentials, and fees, and pick one that best suits their needs (coverage depends on a client’s insurance provider). While Pager says that it may experiment with surge pricing a la Uber—for example, fees could go up during flu season—it also offers phone consultations for as little as $50.

 77% of 18- to 54-year-olds agree that the rise of independent workers will lead to radical reconstruction of social institutions such as health care and retirement. 


Pager, along with other on-demand health-care apps such as Doctor on Demand and Ringadoc, is more than merely a convenience. There’s a promise that these ventures could revolutionize a broken industry by allowing doctors to break out of the assembly-line mentality and get back to hands-on patient care. They might even draw fresh talent to a field that has lost its luster as admin costs, malpractice insurance fees, and general hassles have turned being a GP into a less than lucrative career. Jeevan Vinod, a board-certified doctor of internal medicine and gastroenterology who has signed up to be a Pager doctor, told the Wall Street Journal: “It’s tough these days to be a doctor. There are so many stressors that have nothing to do with actually seeing patients. It all chips away from your time and giving good-quality care.”

Beyond on-call doctors, we can envision how sharing models could modernize the health-care industry to make it more efficient, resourceful, and affordable. Cohealo, for example, applies the Airbnb model to hospitals, by allowing them to share expensive medical equipment that would otherwise be collecting dust. After all, if anyone can rent out a spare room in their house for a couple of hundred dollars, why can’t idle surgical tables—which go for $50,000—also be shared to make hospitals some extra cash?

Supersizing the Sunset Years

With pensions going away and 401(k)s not doing the heavy lifting they used to, it’s all hands on deck to leverage your assets if you don’t want to work until you’re 80 (and even if you do). Retirement used to be all about downsizing—coupon clipping and early-bird dinner specials—but the next generations of retirees could leverage the sharing economy to upsize as a much-needed supplement to Social Security. Rather than trading the family home for the Florida condo, retirees can keep their homes or invest in even larger living spaces and follow the Airbnb model by transforming them into ad-hoc hotels (where there’s always room for the grandkids). There’s no need to sell the midlife-crisis convertible since it can now be rented out by the day via RelayRides. More retirees could even start their own “solopreneur” side projects, such as pet sitting: The peer-to-peer dog-walking site DogVacay allows users to earn thousands of dollars a year—not bad for a flexible retiree with a big backyard. And for those 60-plus who want to stay put in their own homes, the nationwide, online Village to Village Network provides connections to social opportunities with peers nearby and recruits volunteers to help around the house and run errands. For a yearly membership fee of less than $400, people can age in place and delay or avoid entering assisted living.

“Work-life balance” is a top reason Gen X and Y indie workers give for going solo, second only to being my own boss.


Going big, so to speak, comes naturally to the rising class of retiree boomers, who are the most active demographic of seniors ever. Not only are they living longer, retirement for them doesn’t mean hunkering down with the shuffleboard league in Florida—it’s an opportunity to check off entries on their bucket lists. Michael and Debbie Campbell (who run the blog Senior Nomads in Europe and are 69 and 59, respectively) were profiled in the New York Times recently for their voracious retirement travel schedule, which has taken them across Europe for the last year and a half—all powered by Airbnb. Mr. Campbell told the Times: “We’re not on vacation. We’re not retiring in the traditional sense. We’re out seeing the world in Airbnb apartments because that’s how we can afford to do it.” Leave the RV at home: Airbnb surfing, it seems, is the 2.0 retirement community.

This movement toward upsizing and sharing can also serve as a crucial bridge between the assets that are available to Generation Y versus those of boomers: The younger generation can’t afford homes but craves a solid sense of place, while boomers have the homes but no longer need the square footage. And you can’t deny the social benefits of the sharing economy for people who are easing out of office life. As one boomer Airbnb host told us, “All of these interesting people come right to my home now!” Furthermore, scaling up on homes, cars, and other resources might be a savvy way for boomers to help plan for their children’s future and share assets with a generation that may never have the means (or interest) to own as many big-ticket purchases—or maybe boomers are just trying to build appealing compounds that their children will never want to leave. Even retirees, when not cavorting around Europe, agree that connecting with grandkids is better done in person than on Facebook.

Brand Opportunities


As more talent trades corporate nine-to-fives for individual endeavors, think about how outsourcing to outliers could benefit your bottom line.


In the same way that nine-to-fivers gave rise to office parks, day-care centers, power lunches, and happy hours, indie workers will also need workspaces, lunch options, networking events, and ways to blow off steam that fit into their more flexible schedules.


Parents and nonparents alike are seeking to achieve a lifestyle in which passions, hobbies, friendships, and family are all valued just as much as work.


Without benefits from major employers, indie workers are looking to cobble together social institutions—such as health care, child care, and retirement savings—on their own in ways that are nimble and relevant to them.

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