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Corporate Nomadland - The Gig Economy and Digital Nomads

Adam Hartung
Post Date:
June 2, 2021
Last Update:
June 10, 2021
Economy, Innovation, Scenario Planning, Strategy, Trends

Nomadland art... IS Life

The Academy Award winning movie “Nomadland” portrays a woman whose town is decimated when its largest employer leaves. No jobs means homes go valueless, and people are forced to leave. Not only the economy, but lives are wrecked without money, healthcare and any sense of economic future. What follows is a pretty bleak overview of living in one’s vehicle, hustling for jobs of any kind and building networks of other nomads who give encouragement to each other – but not a lot of help. During the movie, the lead character is offered at least two very solid opportunities to move into a more stable situation (one with her family, and one with the family of another nomad.) Yet, she turns down both. Despite living what the filmmakers portray as a very difficult, lonely and economically bleak situation she chooses to continue the nomad lifestyle.Today’s Gig Workers, or Digital Nomads, are often thought of as bleak, lonely people. No permanent job, no permanent employer, no “corporate” home. The view is often of people who are on the stark edges of the economy, struggling to survive in an uncertain future. And that view would largely be wrong.

The Gig Economy, and its self-employed Digital Nomads, represented HALF the U.S. Workforce before the pandemic hit. The World Economic Forum, Ernst & Young and the U.S. Federal Reserve all said that the emergence of the self-employed Gig Economy Digital Nomad represented the largest single economic shift in several generations. All have said this trend for business is as big as the emergence of mobile and internet technologies. It is characterized as a fundamental change in how people work, and a dramatic change in the outdated Industrial Era “contract” between companies and employees.

Digital Nomads are NOT merely a pandemic artifact.

They are members of an enormous mega-Trend: (1)

  • The gig economy is growing so fast its job creation alone can account for all the jobs created in the USA from 2005 through 2016 (corporate hirings/firings were a net no gain)
  • In the last 40 years the employer/employee compact has disintegrated, leading fewer people to trust their employers, so they seek alternative cash flow sources
  • It is estimated half of gig workers maintained full time jobs – but are actively seeking entrepreneurship. Thus the resulting unwillingness to return to low-pay jobs as the pandemic ends.
  • The Gig workforce of Digital Nomads is growing 5x faster than growth in traditional jobs
  • 63% of Gig workers say they started not due to economic requirements, but as a choice
  • In 2017, 53 million Americans participated in gig work (36% of all employees)
  • By 2027, trends project over half of all Americans will be involved in gig work. This pre-pandemic statistic is likely to understate the likely results due to pandemic changes.
  • Prior to the pandemic at least 40% of the American work force made at least 40% of their income from Gig Economy work
  • Digital Nomads cross all age groups? 44% of Boomers, 59% of GenX, 63% of Millennials

Digital Nomads mostly CHOOSE this work approach. In a fast-paced, quickly shifting world the idea that an employer can “protect” its employees is a façade. With the average corporation lifespans now a mere 8 years, no job and no employee can be protected. Neither pay nor benefits are ever a given in markets where companies acquire, merge, are acquired or fail with such regularity.

Employees Empower Themselves In Gig Work

Being a Gig Worker actually fulfills the corporate goal, sought for 35 years, of “empowering employees.” Despite what managers said, organizations operate today in the militaristic style of the last 100 years. Unless you’re the CEO (dictating your own pay and terms) someone is your boss. And your #1 job is to please the boss. Success is less about results, and a lot more about politics, corporate behavior and luck. But as a Digital Nomad you are your own boss. You contract to do something, at a rate, on a timeline and then you deliver. You are empowered to do the work you want, when you want it. To lead the lifestyle you choose, making as much as you desire. Doing your own training, building your own skills, selling your services and reaping the rewards.

Corporate Nomadland is much, much bigger than the Nomadland of the movie. And it is largely comprised of people who want to work like Digital Nomads. It’s not bleak. Rather, in many ways it is the future of work. Especially for people who provide services — from accounting to marketing to sales to planning, to education, workshops, security, etc. It is a world built on networking, connectivity, individual accountability, and entrepreneurial behavior as it existed prior to the Industrial Era.

Unfortunately, a lot of old-school employers and government officials still don’t understand this mega-Trend. They keep trying to force Digital Nomads into becoming employees, by altering work rules and regulations and promoting old-school style unions. Efforts attempting to force employers to do what they can’t – operate their business like it’s 1966. Business people today must be adaptable to market shifts, changing competition and fast moving customer needs. They can’t afford full-time employees and incumbent overhead costs on roles that simply are not economically suited to their needs. Trying to force this behavior hurts the Digital Nomads even worse than the employers, because they don’t want these changes. That’s why the effort to change laws making Gig Workers employees failed in California. That’s why employees failed to unionize an Amazon facility in Alabama.  Even President Biden favors unions, “The policy of our government is to encourage union organizing.” (POTUS tweet 4 Feb 21) Those are not the right answers to today’s problems.

We are living a mega-Trend, accelerated by the pandemic

We now know we can work asynchronously and mobile. We know the results of our work are more important than physically attending meetings, or office politics. We know that we can be more efficient, and capable, when empowered to focus on results and not outdated policies, procedures and processes. And this trend will continue to grow. Despite the CEOs and other leaders that want to force everyone back in offices, in large droves people are choosing not to go.

That’s not to say the government couldn’t be a lot more effective if it accepted this mega-Trend and attempted to assist its citizenry with new approaches. There need to be entirely new approaches for implementing and regulating safety nets – like unemployment, health care and retirement programs. There need to be new regulations for contract negotiations and dispute resolutions between large corporate entities and Gig workers. New approaches for Digital Nomads to network in ways to set output standards, work standards, pricing standards for effectively working with their much bigger customers. There need to be new approaches for bringing on and eliminating transition teams for large projects. Basically, new approaches which support the adaptability and flexibility needed by both employees and Gig Digital Nomads. Digital Nomads are here to stay.  Speaking of mega-Trends, have you seen the new AI-controlled, EV camper?

(1) Section reference

(2) Additional references

-MegaTrends by HP “The Future of Work – The Gig Economy
-World Economic Forum – “The MegaTrend that Will Shape Our Working Future” the Gig Economy
-EY MegaTrends – “The Future of Work” the Gig Economy
-Supermoney – “The Growing Importance of the Gig Economy