The 2016 presidential election–like pretty much every election in the past 30 years–will be determined by a relative handful of votes in a relative handful of states. Politicians will be biting and scratching for the slightest edge, hoping to carve out those few extra votes they need on the margins.
But there is a massive voting bloc out there waiting to be tapped that the candidates should be considering.
There are more than 53 million voting-age Americans no one is really speaking to. Enough voters to easily tip any swing state–if only politicians would take the time to understand their lives, their struggles, and their hopes.
Politicos, meet freelancers.
They’re all around you. More than one in three Americans (34%) is doing some type of freelance work, according to a study commissioned by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk last year.
That number is huge. It’s as large as the entire U.S. Latino community, often hailed as the nation’s most important rising political force. It’s more than the combined number of voters (Democrats and Republicans) who came to the polls in California, New York, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida in 2012. And with annual freelance earnings north of $715 billion, they earn more than the combined value of Facebook, Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, and McDonald’s.
This new class of workers is broad and diverse, from the hipster freelance graphic designer to the mom-of-three making extra money driving an Uber to the house cleaner earning cash with multiple gigs. And they’re politically up for grabs.
No political party has a grip on this group yet because freelancers’ economic reality is so different from what most politicians understand. Freelancers are simultaneously entrepreneurs and precarious workers. They’re small business owners and workers. That’s why you’re starting to hear echoes of their concerns in the rhetoric of both Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren.
Both parties have a real shot at getting their votes–if they listen to this new workforce as a group.
Freelancers have far more in common with each other than they do with people in the traditional workforce. Many of their biggest challenges are the same. Up-and-down income. Double taxation. No benefits. No safety net. And a government and culture that still doesn’t understand them or the way they work.
This is a constituency–and a massive one at that. The candidate who understands how this workforce is connected will be the candidate who picks up votes.
Sadly, despite these huge numbers, most elected officials still don’t get it. That’s understandable, because the government doesn’t seem to understand who these workers are yet either. The federal government hasn’t even counted this new workforce in a decade.
Independent work is simply becoming more normal. “I’m freelancing” is no longer a phrase that stirs up confusion. Platform apps like Uber, Handy, and Airbnb are driving this trend ever faster.
The bottom line is that this type of gig work is here to stay, whether we choose to embrace it or not. Trying to shoehorn it into the old structures made for a manufacturing economy may not be the best way to help workers. We need to adopt a forward-looking strategy, and that starts with a shift in our thinking: Freelancers are a true “class.”
Freelancers as a broad group need an unemployment system that smooths out their inevitable periods of episodic income (the same way the current system smoothed out incomes from industrial layoffs). They need capital infused into organizations and programs that support them, whether that’s from Silicon Valley or the Small Business Administration. They may need a universal basic income that would help them take the risks necessary to build a thriving solo business.
We’re too often trained to think of “class” exclusively in economic terms, that somehow cross-income solidarity is impossible or even unwise. But Industrial Age workers banded together across skill and income levels–from assembly line workers to high-skilled tool-and-dye workers–because they faced similar challenges in the new world of factory-based work.
Freelancers come from tremendously varied socioeconomic backgrounds, but they’re vulnerable in similar ways. The silver lining of common weakness is that it can promote cohesion–and eventually, common strength.
There are 53 million Americans working in a totally new way. It’s past time politicians speak up for their needs.