Freelancing’s Place in the Hudson Valley
By Tola Brennan
It used to just refer to jazz musicians in the 1920s. Now, according to research, it will involve more than half of the American workforce in the next decade.
The “gig economy” label was coined at the height of the financial crisis in 2009 when the recently unemployed made a living from multiple part-time jobs and temporary work. With the rise of ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft, the “gig economy” came into greater prominence with armies of independent contractors working flexible hours while Airbnb’s “sharing economy” further cemented the idea that a new paradigm of “free agents” was on the way.
These behemoths were quickly followed by delivery services like DoorDash, Postmates, Seamless and Instacart, concentrated in urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles, and all relying on a flexible workforce of couriers to accommodate ups and downs in demand. These workers were often students, or unable to find other employment, a precarious class that The Guardian calls a “new model for the working poor.”
However, these manual labor jobs distract from the fact that the story of the gig economy is twofold: dubiously classified independent contractors freeing startups from liability for injury and the overhead of traditional staffing, coupled with something far more noteworthy—a new boom in freelance work.
Because when the jargon falls away, the “gig economy” is little more than a new way of talking about self-employment. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, that includes as many as 68 million Americans.
In the words of New Paltz-based photographer Caylena Cahill, it’s “people that are taking their work into their own hands.”
Cahill had never used the term until The Poughkeepsie Journal’s recent feature exploration of this new trend in work, but now sees it as the best fit. “I feel like I’ve always been part of it,” she said.
Under its broadest and most current use, the “gig economy” includes everything from creatives to construction contractors, actors and filmmakers, even lawyers with a private practice. Any work conducted on a project-basis is part of the gig economy. And if the most feverish headlines are to be believed, pretty soon we’ll all be doing it.
This is due in large part to the ability we now have to work remotely, whether it’s simply greater internet connectivity or making a living from an online freelance platform like Upwork or Fiverr, along with computer-based jobs becoming increasingly the norm.
While technology is the driving force, there’s also a generational shift: millennials crave flexibility far more than their boomer parents. “We’re more afraid of being bored than we are of having to live on Ramen for a while,” is how Jordan Koschei, founder of the Hudson Valley Talentbase, put it.
But with great flexibility (taking camping weekends whenever you like, for example) comes great insecurity. “I’m always kind of fighting for what’s next,” explained Daniel Secor, a freelance graphic design living near Poughkeepsie.
Much of the growth and controversy of this new economic model revolves around the urban financial centers of New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Indeed, dozens of app-based services are only available there. Nonetheless, the Hudson Valley has its own unique place in this economy.
While Uber and Lyft only arrived here last June, the Hudson Valley has long been home to a thriving scene of tech and creative freelancers. “We’ve got this incredible creative energy in the Hudson Valley but I think a lot of people don’t know that it’s there,” said web developer and designer Jordan Koschei.
His story is emblematic. Koschei’s parents fell in love with the area on a weekend trip and moved from the city to raise a family. When Jordan moved away to college, he soon missed the dynamic culture of the Hudson Valley, but believed that to make it as a designer there was no choice but to live in Brooklyn.
Fresh out of college, he lived at home while building his portfolio, hopping from gig to gig. “I wanted to work full-time but on my own stuff,” he recalled. “There was no other option.” Eventually, through his writing, Koschei was offered a full-time position that led to his current position as Lead Product Designer at startup Agrilyst. In Brooklyn. He admits his story is far from typical however, and many are not as lucky.
A message from the nascent Hudson Valley Tech Meetup, a group now boasting over 2,000 members, shattered Koschei’s perception that the big city was the only place to make it in tech. He enthusiastically returned home, yet the geographic spread of the region made it hard to find a community.
This disconnect led Koschei, now working his Brooklyn job from afar, to build the Hudson Valley Talentbase. The idea came to him around five years ago, but he assumed someone else was working on it. “I thought it was a very obvious idea,” he said. Birthed this past summer and formally launched at the HV Tech Meetup last December, the Talentbase is a new kind of social network.
It’s sort of like a hyperlocal LinkedIn, except in Koschei’s vision, it’s not only a place for people to network and find jobs, it’s also a site to share works-in-progress and get feedback. Currently anyone with a Hudson Valley zip code can join and its membership is meant to be creatives or anyone working in tech.
Eventually Koschei sees it as a place for employers to find prospective candidates and a platform for collaboration: imagine a local filmmaker is seeking music composers and is able to search everyone in the area.
The Talentbase has attracted a modest number of users in its first few months, but in many ways, it’s already starting to draw together parts of the Hudson Valley’s gig economy. Early adopter Daniel Secor tried to freelance right out of college but was quickly daunted by inexperience. He took a full-time position at a screen-printing shop and kept doing his own work on the side. Last summer, the company was bought out and when he was laid-off, Secor made the jump to solely gig work.
“It’s really feast or famine,” he said. Still, he wouldn’t go back. Freelancing gives him time to pursue things like yoga and meditation. “The freedom of it is awesome,” he said. “I can’t understate that.”
Secor embraces the challenge of continuously having to reinvent oneself and learn new skills. “It helps you grow,” he said. “Honestly, I think we’re building stronger people with the gig economy.”
Another Talentbase user, Caylena Cahill, has been sharing her work-in-progress: most recently a shoot at One EPIC Place, a co-working space in New Paltz.
For her, freelancing came naturally. “It fits my personality,” she said. “I like variety and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.“ In her eight years out of school, Cahill has never held a full-time job.
As she gained experience, Cahill made the jump to small business, now working as CC Photo and Media, showing that there are no clear lines for where the “gig economy” begins and ends.
Yet as much as the growth in the “gig economy” may feel immanent, some experts say the trend is vastly overblown.
“It’s very clear now to researchers based on work that’s been done in the last couple years that there is an increase in self-employment or freelance activity in the sense that more people are doing it,” said Lawrence Mischel, former director of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank, who has been tracking the trends in freelance employment for years. “But most of the increase is people who are doing it for supplementary income, not as their main job.”
Because of the difficulty in tracking all the variations from full-time freelancers to those who drive for Uber a few hours a week, it’s hard to find agreement on the data now available. Mischel points to a 2014 Harvard Business Review article which notes that based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the number of self-employed Americans has remained virtually unchanged over twenty years at around 14.4 million.
“It’s not like a large minority of young workers are working as freelancers,” said Mischel. “They’re not.” Mischel notes that urban areas get disproportionate attention. While it may seem like practically everyone is becoming a freelancer and working multiple project-based jobs in a place like New York City, statistically that number is still relatively small. Mischel says the number of full-time freelancers is at most 12 percent of the workforce, based on tax filings.
But according to research commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork, a freelancing platform, 50 percent of the workforce will engage in some type of gig economy activity. Even if not a huge number of people exclusively freelance, work to supplement income or push a career shift is growing.
Cahill cites seeing middle-aged people around her laid off and frustrated with few marketable skills as a big incentive to strike out on her own and stay adaptable. But beyond staying nimble, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests young people in particular are willing to take greater risks to do work they care about.
For Koschei, Cahill and Secor, freelancing was the only way to find their way towards careers they care about, a story that feels true beyond numbers. Sites like Talentbase make sense today because they support that transformation. But even in its most positive forms, the gig economy is not a destination.
“I don’t know anyone who is in the gig economy and wants to stay there,” said Koschei.
Secor, a recent homeowner and soon-to-be father, mentions friends in Beacon who work with an agency as a direction he hopes to move towards, while Cahill plans to build her business online over the next five years.
The gig economy represents generational hopes of freedom, flexibility and meaningful work, but it can just as easily become the opposite: workers with less rights, less stable pay, and a culture of compulsive overwork.