Polywork is a new term that describes the concept of choosing multiple part-time jobs or freelance contracts over a single full-time job, primarily when those jobs or gigs cover various areas of interest. I first heard the term when the namesake social network Polywork launched, which considers itself an alternative to traditional business networks like LinkedIn, designed with “poly workers” in mind. The term appears beyond the company, for example, in Neville A Mehra’s “Polywork, Personal Brands, and Jobs of the Future”. It also describes what I do, being a freelance entrepreneur who always works for different clients at the same time and covers various tasks such as software development, technical writing, and consulting.
Last night I saw a tweet that triggered writing this article. It featured two screenshots of articles describing polywork as a new trend embraced by millennials and Gen Z, captioned with: “They’ve come up with a new word for desperately working multiple jobs just to be able to afford rent.” Many of the comments agree with the original tweet, adding other words like “exploitation” in the mix. Now, what’s the truth about polywork? Is it “desire or necessity”, as a Forbes article titled it?
We live in exciting times with a lot of things changing around us due to digital transformation. We further live in times of rising economic inequality and insecurity in a lot of countries. There’s also a vast diversity of (sub-)cultures and lifestyles. One of the problems with this world is that it makes it increasingly difficult to throw large parts of the population together and describe them accurately. Any attempt to define millennials or Gen Z (or any other generation) as a whole is an oversimplification that ignores different economic realities and levels of privilege.
The truth is that one person can be forced into something that is a choice for another. You can be a freelancer because nobody wants to give you a full-time job, or you can choose it because you value freedom and diversity and don’t want to make yourself dependent on a single employer. Of course, the economic reality of the first person is terrible, and we should improve it, but that doesn’t mean that the choice of the second person is invalid. It’s wrong to assume that they’ve just been gaslit into believing they made a choice and they’d be happier with stable employment.
There’s the widespread belief among some in the political left, especially those closely aligned with worker’s unions, that the best way to end economic precarity is to make sure that everybody has a 9-5 job with strong worker protections. While I welcome the availability of jobs for those who want them, I believe it’s challenging to organize the whole economy around them. The necessities of modern companies require on-demand expertise that flexible contractors can bring to the table. Instead of forcing the 9-5 model on everyone, we should have different ways of social protection for freelancers and other poly workers, such as a universal basic income.
The whole concept doesn’t just apply to work but also to consumption habits. Let me tell you a story from my childhood. Our neighbors used to go on a skiing vacation every winter. Once, their son came to us and said: “I feel sorry for you that you can’t afford to go on vacation.” This child’s assessment was wrong because my parents could well afford it. They were just not interested in skiing.
One of the reasons for overconsumption is that people want to signal their purchase power. There are counter-movements like minimalism, but they’re still a niche. Again, some people may want to own a single-family home, a car, etc. but can’t afford one. Others prefer to rent an apartment or use carsharing for flexibility and avoid the responsibility of ownership, even though they could own more stuff. It’s crucial, however, to not mistake one for the other. We must improve the economic circumstances of the poor, but at the same time, there are benefits when the rich choose to work and consume less or differently. Having to do things due to poverty is not a “trend”, but neither is it helpful to force the middle-class and the rich into a “normal” lifestyle of overwork and overconsumption.