The continued growth of the economy of individuals


I recently spoke to Steve Poor, chairman of Seyfarth Shaw, one of the world’s top 100 law firms, for his Pioneers and Pathfinders podcast.

I greatly enjoyed our far-ranging conversation, which delved deep into the future of work and as far as the future of society. You can listen to the whole episode below.

One of our topics of conversation was the “economy of individuals”, a phrase I started using a decade ago. Here is what I said in response to Steve’s question about the idea in the podcast:

The economy of individuals doesn’t mean that organizations don’t exist, but it means in the first instance that in a fairly obvious way more and more people are either freelancers or independent agents, as Dan Pink described in his book Free Agent Nation. More of us are working as individual contractors, sometimes with a single client, more with multiple clients. This is what LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman describes as the alliance between the employer and the employee.

Hoffman says there’s mutual value in being able to develop the individual so they can create as much value as possible for the organization as well as themselves. This alliance means that individuals within an organization are becoming free agents, more and more flexible, able to do things outside that organizations’ constraints, which increasingly give staff the flexibility to do side gigs.

Inside organizations I believe we’re moving away from the rigidity of: ‘this is a job, this is a role, this is very tightly defined, let’s find the right person to put in this box’, towards organizations enabling a more fluid structure, bringing together what individuals are able to contribute to create the greatest value for the organization.

So organizations will still exist, but we now have more that are using a combination of full-time staff, full-time contractors, outsourced staff, and crowd workers. Major platforms such as Upwork now have major corporate divisions that can provide thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals that can work on specific tasks, you may have some of those people on staff but if they are currently busy you can access more fluid labor.

This again goes back to the individual as the creator of value. Of course it’s labor plus capital, with the capital embedded in technologies, artificial intelligence, workflows, processes. These are what makes the organization work. However the individual is I believe increasingly at the heart, the essence of value creation.

The phrase ‘economy of individuals’ is of course a single frame and this is a rich topic. I will return to the massively important topic of the evolving relationship of individuals and organizations in other posts before long.

Image: Dimitar Belchev