The State of Buffalo’s Creative Gig Economy

7 Sep

Turns out I’m not the special unique snowflake I thought I was. Turns out I’m a  special unique snowflake that looks just like one-third of the US workforce.

When I moved back to Buffalo four plus years ago, I had trouble finding a “real” job. You know, one where I put on a shirt and tie everyday and went to the same office and did the same thing and derived the majority of the family income from one employer and got health insurance and a retirement plan. A job where I worked 60 hours a week for one organization and structured my life around that schedule. A job that looked a lot like the military career I was leaving, at least as far as pay, healthcare, vacation, advancement opportunity and an office with a computer were concerned.

So instead I settled for a tenuous, shadowy unreal job: full time consultant. I made a home office, incorporated for the tax advantages, got a business credit card, and hired myself out to a DC-based defense contractor. Buffalo was my bedroom community, and my “employer” flew me around the country for work. I got irregular paychecks, no health insurance or retirement plan, and had to hire an accountant to make sure I paid correctly into income taxes, social security and unemployment insurance (which, being effectively self-employed, I’d never be able to claim). I worked when the work was available, and vacation meant not only no pay, but the fear that I’d be passed over for the next consulting job.

Over time I’ve added to the income stew. I raft guide on the weekends and am trying to write more, finishing a book and finding magazines that pay. My wife started her own consulting company on the side to pick up extra work and do the statistical research she enjoys. Between the two of us, we have six jobs: one real one (hers) that doesn’t pay well but provides the family health insurance, and five fake ones that provide a mix of personal satisfaction and funding for everything from daycare to date night. All this time my self talk, the little voice of Catholic guilt and inadequacy in my head, has told me that my inability to secure a “real” job is a fundamental failure. All this freelancing is just temporary playing around. My situation, no matter the actual enjoyment I derive out of it, is less desirable than the stability and structure of a “real” job. If I am part of a general statistic, it is the increased unemployment rate among military veterans.

Spot Coffee - how much work is happening here?

Turns out the group I should have tossed myself into is the growing Gig Economy (a clever play on words, referencing both the electronics and temp job slang) as a ronin, now 33% of the American workforce.

For Labor Day, The Atlantic magazine has run a series of stories on the new freelance economy, which they describe this way:

It’s been called the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

This idea isn’t new – Richard Florida has been hawking books about his Creative Class for years – but the uncertain economy is bringing the issue to a head. The Atlantic notes that the government doesn’t even collect statistics about this nebulous world of freelancing. We may be caught in a cycle where companies are waiting for certain business stats (unemployment rate, etc) to improve before they invest their piles of cash, but the economy has so fundamentally changed, and the government statisticians are so far behind, that they might as well be waiting for Godot. Higher old-fashioned unemployment rates in urban areas becomes a reflection of the size of the freelance culture, while low rates in the Great Plains simply means everyone is still stuck in a “real” job.

The Atlantic rightly notes that the labor laws of our country are based in a New Deal vision of the workforce, and the protections it delivers workers (unionization, limited workweek, healthcare, vacation, etc) mean little in a freelance world. Particularly galling is the recent uninspired Healthcare Reform legislation that doubles down on propping up insurance companies and the employer based system of providing care. The limited healthcare Co-Ops, slow to be implemented and unknown to most, barely scratch the surface of the necessary reforms. In time, President Obama’s compromised initiative may well look a lot like France’s pre-World War II investment in the Maginot Line: hopelessly and embarrassingly archaic, a failure of vision.

Closer to home, Buffalo has never fared well on comparative Creative Class rankings, and its worth asking if we collectively even want to. Our energies are still directed at attracting and retaining companies with traditional jobs (like most of the rest of the country, to be fair) in sectors of the economy not conducive to freelancing: specialized manufacturing, cross-border logistics, food processing. But like much else in Buffalo, there is organic timely change happening at the fringe, outside of the official channel – Accidental Success as I have called it. The Main Washington Exchange is attracting start ups and freelancers. Kissling Interests made a splash converting the old casket company into live-work lofts in Allentown, though one better be a successful freelancer to afford the rent. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, our dark horse in plain view, has opened the Innovation Center adjacent to the old Trico plant to attract fledgling bio-research companies. These “companies” tend to be individual scientists looking for lab space, freelancers in all but name in their chosen field.

The idea of a small business incubator is well known. What would a freelance incubator look like? Something beyond free wi-fi and strong brew at the downtown coffee shops? Is the MWE the answer? Do we need ten more? Or is the whole question anachronistic itself, and the answer already exists online, a virtual community that gets freelance tips from robo Twitter accounts?

13 Responses to “The State of Buffalo’s Creative Gig Economy”

  1. Chris Sasiadek September 7, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    A good free-lance incubator would help provide the information and services you mentioned as special to free-lancers (vs. real-jobbers). Perhaps provide a low or no-cost financial advisor to help with the special tax status of free-lancers, health-care cooperatives to pool together free-lancers to save on costs. Thinking along the lines of an SBA, how about professional proposal writers to assist free-lancers the same way that an SBA helps small businesses develop business plans.

    This is one of your best posts yet.

  2. Dan Gigante September 7, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    I think the area is perfect for this new e-conomy – live in Buffalo and do work for companies outside of the area.  I referred to it as “on-shoring” a few years ago.
    I think we do need more co-working space – I was recently at a Co-working facility in Manhattan – It was huge… over 350 people were using it.  I think the idea of low/no cost assistance is great, a good way to get health insurance would be even better. we could encourage ex-pats that it’s time to move back home but keep your job or create a new one.

  3. Derek J. Punaro September 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    I think you should be able to get the health insurance thing to work. One of the local providers I’m sure would set up a group plan for members. The Arts Council of Buffalo provides this type of benefit: http://www.artscouncilbuffalo.org/artist_resources/insurance.asp

  4. Leo Wilson September 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Good suggestions from every post – to expand on what has been suggested, a staff accountant and/or lawyer to assist with dealing with the IRS and insurance… insurance pools that might include liability as well as health coverage… discounted bonding… Guidance and/or assistance with any of the basic requirements that lots of the newly self-employed typically stumble over or get crushed by.

  5. Leo Wilson September 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    Oh and… this doesn’t have to be just local. It could be regionalized to include more than one area. Regulations and requirements in Ithaca and Cortland and Horseheads are probably the same as here. If you collaborate with others pursuing the same ends, the kind of professional assistance that might be cost prohibitive could be mitigated by spreading the cost around. The resources themselves could communicate electronically.

  6. Brian Castner September 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    Not the shill for The Atlantic, but the writer of that piece is the XD for a group trying to provide the basic healthcare, retirement, etc services: http://www.freelancersunion.org/

    While all the services you guys describe are necessary, I was imagining an incubator would also provide tips and tricks, mentoring from vets to younguns, job lists and leads on gigs, etc. Maybe that is really the online part, as much of the freelance work is actually for out-of-town firms.

  7. Republican Dream September 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Your experience is Milton Friedman’s wet dream — a more perfect market for labor.

    I never understood why the business class wouldn’t be for national health insurance. What company wants to procure health care?

    RepubliCorp = Sucker Bet

  8. Leo Wilson September 8, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Leads on gigs sounds a little optimistic from freelancers. Sub-contracting might be more likely.

  9. Leo Wilson September 8, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    #7 – What is the federal government doing so well that you’d trust them to make health care decisions for your parents and children?

    Truth: UMMC realizes less than 30% medical losses at the same time the PPACA mandates 80% medical losses for private insurers. The provate insurers are meeting that mandate, paying providers fairly and making a profit, too. to me, this implies that gov’t administration of health care is 250% more inefficient than a private insurer. Why would you want to pay for that atrocious overhead?

  10. Brian Wood September 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    The reason the private insurers fought a public option is that they aren’t eager to compete (because they’re cowards, because they’re corporate socialists, because they’ve got theirs) with government, which ALWAYS and everywhere provides insurance at better prices than insurers (3% overhead vs. 30%).

    As to GIG, better a poor creator than a wage slave (wage slavery is still slavery)?

  11. Brian Wood September 8, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    I’d always trust the feds over a greedhead insurance CEO or one of his/her flunkies.

  12. Leo Wilson September 8, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    Mr. Wood, except that what I stated is truth that you can verify on your own. PPACA does impose that mandate, and private insurers are meeting it while paying providers fairly and making a profit both. The UMMC does realize less than 30% medical losses, too.

    I appreciate that this is a partisan blog, but why would you defend incompetence and inefficiency so dramatic it amounts to thievery?

  13. huh September 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Leo please speak English and offer up your citations (please none of that Koch bros funded crap either).

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