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Digital-media workers of the world, unite!

E-lancing your way through micro-careers is no way to live

June 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

The sanctums of online journalism, which have disrupted everything from the business models of the publishing world to the basic definition of original editorial content, are now facing an unwelcome new disruption of their own. Earlier this month, the employees of Gawker Media, one of the earliest and most successful Web-publishing networks, voted to unionize, and create one of the first digital locals for the Writers Guild of America. Seeking to capitalize on this high-profile victory, a group of union activists and labor reporters announced a national organizing push for digital media workers, to be launched at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in October.

Longtime observers of yon digital-media revolution know that things weren’t supposed to play out this way. The online media gold rush, like every other form of digital commerce, was supposed to gleefully overturn the old workplace hierarchies of the fast-expiring industrial age. Where fusty, backward notions like group healthcare benefits, retirement plans, and workplace solidarity once reigned, flattened hierarchies, IPO stock options, and casualized free-agent work regimes were now going to take irresistible, spontaneous hold. Let a thousand entrepreneurs — and millions upon millions of sassy listicles and uproarious cat videos — bloom!

So what exactly went wrong? Like most collateral victims of misdirected ambition dating back to ancient Greece, the barons of are falling to their own staggering hubris.

Consider the curious, amply instructive case of Medium.com. The online blogging platform began its publishing life at the behest of Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, who was determined to preserve the perennially beleaguered “long form” model of Web-based journalism. Medium would not pander to the listicle-addled business models of BuzzFeed or mimic the voyeuristic piffle slapped on the front page of the Huffington Post.

In short order, though, Medium’s investors found that journalistic ambition produced disappointing market returns. So the cherished longform ideal was quietly mothballed, and the site began in short order pandering to each and every played-out market-libertarian cliché in the well-worn Silicon Valley playbook. The site has become shorter, snappier—and robustly sycophantic in its portrayals of the prerogatives, whims and general largesse of corporate America.

A near-perfect specimen of the genre appeared this month on Backchannel, the Medium subsite founded by former Wired writer Steven Levy — a practiced courtier of Silicon Valley’s callow-yet-swaggering info elite, and author of the ain’t-Google-grand corporate hagiography “In the Plex.” In his liberationist manifesto, “The Full-Time Job Is Dead,” Kevin Maney, a Levy epigone and budding Web prophet, is here to tell you just how very excellent your future as a free-agent impresario of serial — or better yet, simultaneous! — “micro-careers” is going to be. “Technology is now changing the nature of work,” Maney enthuses — and then we’re docented through a Tomorrowland-style survey of the relevant trends. A new era is upon us, he writes,

in which most of us will work in multiple ‘micro-careers’ at the same time, leaving the traditional full-time job behind. ‘Work’ is likely to turn into a marketplace in the cloud rather than a desk and a chair at a traditional corporation. A free agent workforce will be able to make a good living layering a number of professional relationships, entrepreneurial passions and other money-making pursuits on top of each other. 

The great disruption is already under way in the American labor market, Maney contends, in sectors “mostly focused on simple, hands-on work.” Ride-sharing apps Lyft and Sidecar have transformed mere car owners into enviably layered proprietors of their own cabs. AirBnB allows you to turn your domestic domicile into a robust revenue stream. The cloying hipster-crafts portal Etsy “is a market for the handmade skirts you sew while watching ‘Game of Thrones,’” Maney writes in a revealing aside that displays zero knowledge of actual textile work or cable binge-viewing.

No one said disruption would be painless now, did they?

This same willful obtuseness colors Maney’s account of how this spontaneous self-reinvention of our work routines has crept up the socioeconomic ladder, so that our credentialed professional class will undergo its own free-agent makeover. Health benefits? Retirement plans? Job security and seniority? Those are all the drab, uncreative emollients reserved for the square. Be daring and layered, Daddy-O! Instead of having a boring regular job with a boring regular pay check, you can continually apply for gig after gig, as the managers setting your wage rates all compete with each other to see how little they can get away with paying you! Hey, no one said disruption would be painless now, did they?

And you don’t want to be one of those time-serving sheeple whose dreary way is already earmarked for the dustbin of history, now, do you? After all, Maney writes with ill-concealed self-congratulatory glee, the upcoming generation of workers have already briskly adapted to the terminal precarity of the working life as just the natural (read: “pure market”) order of things:

While this kind of dynamic, entrepreneurial life may horrify an older generation, we already know that younger workers tend to prefer their work to be more ephemeral. … A recent Future Workplace survey found that 91 percent of millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years, and that flexible hours and location-independent policies are more desirable than salary.

In other words, HR directors the world over have a brave new axiom to bring to the challenges of post-industrial labor relations: Pay your workers less, and fire them more often! Of course, it’s not exactly true that workers who expect to have a job for less than three years, and privilege more footloose outlets for their labor, are professing an active and freely chosen preference for such things. And it’s even less manifestly the case that they’re carrying out an entirely healthy and overdue generational smashing of the outworn labor idols of an “older generation.”

It’s far more likely, in fact, that millennials are adopting such postures out of weary fatalism than “dynamic” and “entrepreneurial” elan. Federal Reserve estimates in 2012 found that 44 percent of recent American college graduates were working fewer hours than they wanted — or needed, in order to make ends meet. Another high-profile study of recent college grads reported that, two years after matriculating, fully 74 percent required ongoing financial assistance from their parents, while just 47 percent of those who were working full-time had landed positions paying $30,000 or more annually. (This, mind you, at time when the average student loan burden for successful college graduates stands at $29,400.)

In other words, what strikes breathless New Economy sloganeers like Maney as a tidal upsurge in militant entrepreneurial self-reinvention actually resembles, on closer inspection, something much more like the bleak conditions of tenant farming — right down to the ominous state of debt peonage engineered by the student-loan-provider/company store.

It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Maney’s assault on full-time work is yet more whorish sponsored content — a disclaimer at the end of his outburst announces that it was “launched in partnership with Upwork, the world’s largest freelance talent marketplace.” But lest that tagline prove too subtle, Maney also thoughtfully supplied this, um, authentic testimonial to his microcareer employer of the moment in his own sponsored copy: “Upwork … is a pure market for free agent work, letting any entity find and hire professionals for almost any type of knowledge-based work.”

Thus is the great liberated circle closed: From betokening a welcome and unprecedented revolution in the powers of the self-propelled worker, Kevin Maney and Medium are only plying a sad new-media variation on the world’s oldest profession.

So, all together now, digital journalists: Which side are you on?

Chris Lehmann is an editor for BookForum and The Baffler and a columnist for In These Times. He was the deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World from 2000 to 2004.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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