Most people will have seen the George Clooney movie about the corporate downsizer who spends his life jetting around America. There is something about Ryan Bingham that is both sad and courageous – although, in the end, he is left appearing to be destined to lead an empty existence, devoid of human warmth. One of the scenes from the film that sticks in the memory is his probably much repeated “What’s in your backpack?” speech at a convention. Though somewhat trite, the message has a resonance in all our lives. How many of us are held back by ties of family, friends, cultural familiarity, fear of the unknown, or just a day-to-day inertia – and how much does the sheer weight of it all drag us down?
I was reminded of this speech recently when I was reading Howard French’s book about Africa – “China’s Second Continent”. The influence of China in the third world can look to us in the West like an invasion by this mega-state to exploit mineral resources and carry out a huge land grab. But a large part of this flow of humanity is actually down to the individual initiatives of ordinary Chinese people who just one day decide to jump on a plane with a few thousand US dollars in their pockets and end up in somewhere like Malawi, Mali, or Mozambique. It does not appear to bother them that they do not speak the language, know anybody, that there may be a civil war in the country or the strong threat of terrorism and crime. They just single-mindedly seek to earn a living and generally their determination pays off. Once settled, they send for their families, then friends and former neighbours hear about their experience and join them.
When questioned by French, the stories have a strange similarity. China is a crowded and competitive place. You need money and connections to succeed and if you live in one of the poorer provinces, you start off with a built-in disadvantage. Africa looks not like another “poor place”, but an unformed and undeveloped one where the native population is not utilising their opportunities to the full. The Chinese approach – whether by companies, the state or individuals – is not to get involved in local politics, not to take sides, but to see where an opportunity exists and find the best way to exploit it. They are not tied into conventional careers and see family ties as ultimately amenable. Enterprise dictates everything, and home is where the money flows. When asked by French if they ultimately wish to return to China, few individual entrepreneurs declared any enthusiasm. They have tasted freedom and built something for themselves. That is their personal, crowning achievement and they owe no one a favour for it.
It only takes a quick tour of employment laws around the world to conclude that they are all built on the assumption of a safe, unenterprising inertia. The permanent employee is the default position for most laws, and anything less is often viewed as precarious and exploitative. Self-employment is seen by governments as something to be taxed out of existence and the gig economy as something to be regulated to the point that such workers fall back onto becoming regularly paid servants once more. Sure, human achievements do often need to be undertaken collectively in teams, and longer-term research does require a measure of security, but that is not to remove the possibility that freelancers could, if necessary, join together for set purposes.
I once had a large Scandinavian engineering company as a client and their head office consisted of three rooms over a dress shop in a Swedish city. Everything was controlled by the CEO and Finance Director and the company functioned successfully with its few other senior staff based in factories around the world. Conventions can be easily broken and a lean and mean corporate HQ can also justify for once a significant top management to employee pay gap.
For a long time, the model for fostering decentralised independence has been the business format franchise. However, this does not actually generate freedom, but a form of economic serfdom. The way ahead needs to take another path and the real barrier will be the stifling straitjacket of “employment law”, at least as it is currently drafted in the majority of countries around the world. It is perfectly conceivable for companies to have a small core of key technical and managerial staff who are on their payroll and contract out – or “gig out” – all the rest. Some companies already come near to this, but fears about employment status hold them back. One answer would be for companies to share a pool of freelancers without utilizing the intermediary services of a work agency. This would require care in setting it up and freelance rates would have to be individually negotiated to stop it falling into a labour cartel – but it could offer some hope for the future, especially in more liberal jurisdictions. Food for thought?