Welcome to my "Starting Monday" column - where I share my abiding thoughts about last week's business/busyness, and let it generate one leading question for the next week.
Last Wednesday, the magazine of the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (or IPSE) was relaunched in London, as Modern Work. As a lifelong freelancer, I've enjoyed discovering IPSE's activities. Like any decent Association, they provide services (for a yearly subscription) that respond to any of the urgencies and crises a freelancer might face. The benefits aren't as extensive as, say, the Freelancers' Union in the US - whose provision of health-care coverage is a huge incentive to join, in Trump's punitive America.
Yet even though I've been a freelancer all my life, I'm not attracted to join the ISPA. There may be a basic contradiction here - the very independence and self-determination of the "free lance" (a mercenary for hire, literally) doesn't sit well with joining anything.
About 30 years ago, I let my Musicians' Union membership lapse: to get on a TV music show, we'd had to go through the farce of "re-recording" our beautifully-made LP of American musicians, because of MU "rules" on employing U.K. musicians. After that farcical constraint on my creative choices, I will admit to having nursed (and treasured) my self-reliance ever since - no matter the regular financial peaks and troughs.
But as the rest of the world has caught up with the musicians and the writers - all our talk of the "gig economy", of the "precariat" - I'm increasingly wondering if we can do better, collectively, to support and value freelance work. What was once a mildly heroic choice - "thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment", says Maurice de Bracy in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), which introduced the phrase “free lance” to the English language - is now a compelled predicament.
Networked, algorithm-driven companies lift and lay service workers, already ground down by their position in the division of labour. We should support state-level and regulatory measures to raise the wage floor of these "gig" labours - whether living wage or basic income.
Yet could we devise a system which didn't just protect the insecure and exploitable, but saw some creative and prosperous advantages to flexible and freelance working? An article I wrote for the Scotsman a few years ago still feels right on this:
Freelancers present an extreme on the spectrum of flexible workers. Should we be exploring and developing what Europeans call “social flexicurity”? In this idea, it’s presumed that people will work episodically, from project to project – but that doesn’t mean they should be subject to “workfare” restrictions on social support between gigs.
We muse on tax breaks for quicksilver multinational corporations, but perhaps we could also look again at the (recently expired) Irish and French fiscal experiments for exemptions to creative workers. Aren’t quirky, unique businesses – and the mavericks who might start them – worth structural support too?
The incessant challenges of new technologies, new global economic players and new climatic limits on growth and development can drive people to distraction – maybe even, as can be seen in recent Scandinavian election results, xenophobia. We need to imagine subtler, more resilient platforms of social security for daily lives that we have to accept will be increasingly defined by “social precarity”.
Another notable date last week was Nordic Day (Friday) - which marks the date that the Helsinki Treaty was signed in 1962, committing Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden to "cooperative relations" in almost every area - law, education, economy. Or as the original treaty puts it, "the close ties existing between the Nordic peoples in matters of culture, and of legal and social philosophy." In terms of these nations' high performance on many global indicators of progress, one can argue the cooperation has been at least mutually beneficial.
But what's at the root of it - and what can an increasingly fractious world learn from it? One of the most interesting research organisations I know in the U.K., Jonathan Rowson's Perspectiva, illuminated the reason in its recent event on The Nordic Secret, launching a book of the same name.
What these countries share, according to its co-authors Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman, is a historical commitment to social institutions aimed at the development of character, and inner strength. These are forms of "folk education" which arose in the aftermath of Romanticism, and in the course of independence struggles.
This folk education was inspired by German idealist thinkers like Goethe, Schiller and Humboldt, and particularly their notion of "bildung". As paraphrased by Bjorkman and Anderson, it couldn't sound a more beautiful way to be:
Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him- or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms.
It is the enculturation and life-long learning that forces us to grow and change, it is existential and emotional depth, it is life-long interaction and struggles with new knowledge, culture, art, science, new perspectives, new people, and new truths, and it is being an active citizen in adulthood. Bildung is a constant process that never ends.
I've known about "Bildungsroman" since my university days - 19thC European novels which concerned the formation of character - but I'd never really dug out the concept bildung from all those lecture notes. The Nordic Secret authors want to recover the practice from its current neglect in its home countries. They reported at the Perspectiva event that it has been subsumed into general policies on "skills improvement" and "lifelong learning".
But to me (and looping back to the first half of this blog), bildung sounds to me like the ultimate training programme for the resilient and dynamic freelancer of the 21st century.
If one of the benefits of freelancing is more mental autonomy - more ability to think separately from and critically of the norms of society or organisations - then bildung urges you to use that freedom for civic, as well as commercial ends.
Indeed, as the Nordics would with some justification claim, the two reinforce each other. Societies made up with strong, thoughtful and self-possessed characters are also courageous, inventive and enterprising in the round too.
And there's my question for this coming week. What network, organisation (or even union) could offer to develop the freelancer's bildung?
Who's making them? If not, shall we?
Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.