Liberated freelancers not ready to go back into their pens

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The proposal put forward by the Borstlap Committee on Work Regulation was still stirring up the labour market this week. It was also felt by the civil servants at the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, whom philosopher Rutger Claassen and I were helping to reflect on their labour market policies. Claassen raised an interesting point while we were there: for many workers, the Committee’s proposal of reintroducing regular employment as the default is not as appealing as it might seem.

Deep down, I think that freelancers also want peace and quiet. Sandra Phlippen Chief Economist ABN AMRO

Self-employed workers, in particular, have become used to their freedom. While such a large freelance workforce is perhaps not good for the Dutch economy – slowing down productivity, for example, and undermining the insurance principle – that does not mean that all those liberated salary employees will let themselves be herded back into their pens – even if all the tax benefits of being self-employed are taken away from them.

Freelancers have made an extreme choice to have the same things that many salary employees also yearn for: autonomy and control over when, where and how they do their work. More and more workers also believe that their work should make a meaningful contribution to society. Deep down, I think that freelancers might also just want peace and quiet: less stress, less pressure as they carry out the profession that they love. “You all do what you want, I’m going into business for myself” seems to be their reason for setting up shop.

As the strikes by teachers and healthcare workers show, the desire for more peace and quiet and substantive work (instead of paperwork) is shared in those sectors too. That pressure, I suspect, might arise from the obsessiveness with which organisations tell their people to keep developing all the time. The idea of ‘lifelong learning’ is a key feature in the future of the labour market. It is important for society to make sure that people can continue to contribute and that organisations remain competitive. The question is: how do the workers themselves feel about it?

Not everyone enjoys the idea of developing, of becoming the best they can be. The other side of the coin is that you have to be the best you can be every single day: getting better and better, hitting your targets again and again. Grow and improve year after year. The result is an exciting organisation that is equipped to deal with an evolving world. But it also means constant pressure. Many organisations nowadays believe in the mantra of ‘up or out’. That can make people unhappy: not everyone can be a highflyer all the time. At the moment, 1 in 6 workers report symptoms of burnout. When asked why they work from home, most people give as their reasons the information overload and inability to concentrate at the workplace.

No one will deny that younger workers, flex workers and self-employed workers on the labour market also dream of the economic security of regular employment. Before we herd all the liberated sheep back into the pen of a regular job, however, we should first decide how to make their jobs appealing again.

Every week, Sandra writes a newspaper column for daily newspaper AD (in Dutch only), which can also be read here.

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