The Rise Of Rōnin and The Liquid Economy
Why agility and swift trust will underlie the industrial revolution of our time
Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union (through which I get my health insurance, by the way), makes the case that we are moving into a new US economy where rōnin (or freelancers) are becoming a significant force:
Sara Horowitz, The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time
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.
Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.
And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.
This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own.
The term ‘free lance’ was originally coined by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), to represent a mercenary warrior not sworn to any lord’s service (and not that the warrior’s efforts would be free of charge). In the 1860s its meaning became figurative.
I favor the term rōnin over freelancer, perhaps because it hasn’t been tinged with 100+ years of use in US economics. Perhaps more of a consideration for me is that the term rōnin literally means ‘wave man’, suggesting one who is operating in a more liquid, less solid, sort of connection to the world and others. And this explosive growth of rōnin workers started with the rise of the web, which has lowered the costs of independent work, on both sides, for both the rōnin and the companies that employ their efforts.