Will we all be subcontractors in the future?
In the USA, and more recently in Europe and France, the classic salaried employment model has been challenged by self-employed workers who carry out tasks for companies which have outsourced them.
In the USA, between 1999 and 2014, the percentage of freelancers increased from 13% of the active population to over 30%. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of self-employed workers increased by 45% in Europe and more than 85% in France (EFIP survey on ipros), although salaried work under a permanent contract remains the most common situation in France, accounting for 86.8% of the active population (INSEE 2015 survey). We are in the midst of a significant change in work, involving a growing number of self-employed workers but also people who combine salaried employment and freelance work as a supplement. This development has various causes and highlights the increase in activity outsourced outside of company walls.
Between cost reduction and a desire for independence
While we often attribute this phenomenon to the development of the digital economy, and more recently collaborative consumption, outsourcing arose prior to the use of personal computers. Starting in the 1970s at the end of the "Trente Glorieuses" boom period, employment and salaried work were changed to allow companies to develop their competitiveness and reduce their costs as much as possible. The situation also changed for individuals. Since 1982, the unemployment rate in France has never dropped below 7% and it affects more than 25% of young people. Faced with a larger demand than supply, the power of negotiation is significantly reduced, requiring employees to accept less lucrative and more unstable working contracts. This imbalance explains a large portion of self-employment, particularly among older people who, despite their wide range of skills, cannot find a salaried job. At the same time, and almost paradoxically, some of the most educated people, who are the least worried about unemployment, aspire to a sort of personal development in work, which they associate with a growing demand for independence, a demand which the business world does not meet.
What role does digital technology play in this? Whilst it isn't actually the key element in this outsourcing phenomenon, it plays a role as accelerator and facilitator by offering not only new ways of organising work but also online infrastructures which encourage connections between companies with an international pool of workers. Companies therefore have access to a large and varied workforce which can complete complex projects as well as micro-tasks.
Some platforms like Eyeka and Hopwork generally offer more complex projects, which mainly involve jobs linked to digital development, creation (graphic designer, web designers), marketing or copywriting, with decent payments. This system bears a strong resemblance to Gustave de Molinari's 19th century utopian dream which involved employment exchanges where workers could offer their services to the highest bidder... the only difference being that in reality the workers asking for the lowest salary get the job, placing Western countries in competition with countries with less social protection.
Along the same lines, research and development activities, traditionally an internal activity, are not exempt from outsourcing with open innovation. Platforms which are entirely dedicated to open innovation, such as Spigit or Studyka, allow self-employed workers, students or start-ups to submit ideas or innovative applications to a contest for a reward.
A new system
This outsourcing is a form of subcontracting of micro-tasks which cannot be automated. This is known as crowdsourcing, an expression which comes from the combination of the words crowds and outsourcing. Mechanical Turk is the most well-known platform, but there are many others, such as ClickWorker or LiveOps. Mechanical Turk is a micro-jobs platform created in 2005 by Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, which connects self-employed workers, called "turkers", with companies which want to outsource work which cannot be digitally automated, such as identifying images or comparing invoices. These tasks are divided into small chunks and allocated amongst 500,000 workers in exchange for a very small amount of money (between 0.5 and 15 cents per task).
Job or pastime?
Whether micro-job platforms like Mechanical Turk, micro-personal services such as TaskRabbit, or private rental sites like OuiCar.fr or AirBnB, all these companies are based on the fairly vague idea of user activity. Is it a job or a paid pastime? The boundary between the two is often blurred, particularly when the worker can also be a consumer, as is the case with OuiCar.fr or AirBnB. Can a person who uses their car as part of a car sharing service or who sublets their apartment during the holidays be considered a worker? On AirBnB, rental activity is considered a "sideline" by 46% of users, but it has the potential to become a real job. According to Syndicat des hôteliers figures , 20% of Paris apartment offers come from multiple property owners who can rent up to one hundred sites across the capital. This results in an extremely profitable business, as the activity is exempt from corporate taxation. The same temptation for off-the-books work is evident on private car rental sites such as Drivy, which allows some very active users to earn between €200 and €500 a month on the site. The situation is also different on platforms which provide personal services. On Youpijob, for example, users are called "jobbeurs" and can be either registered autoentrepreneursor "qualified individuals", i.e. occasional workers who do not necessarily declare their income. Finally the crowdsourcing website Foule Factory allows users to complete micro-tasks for a maximum sum of €3,000 per year. Why is this limitation in place? To prevent this "new type of paid pastime" being considered an actual job in the eyes of the law. However according to the 2015 report Challenges and opportunities for collaborative consumption published by the Ministry for the Economy, Industry and Digital Technology, the "Uberization" of the economy can lead to a significant source of income. For 23% of French households, these new activities provide more than 30% of their income or even half of their income for 9%. The money earned is a supplement, helping to make ends meet, or for the most unstable like young people and the elderly, an alternative to long-term unemployment and a safety net against poverty. However this safety net remains tiny when compared with the benefits gained by these companies, which are developing in a no man's land in terms of labour law.