“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”
William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884
Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.
There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.
A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.
A cultural shift
Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”
That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.
The new tribes of enterprise
The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.
Poorer but happy
Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:
“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”
I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.
Self employment is about thinking.
The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.
Self-employment is family friendly.
The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.
Make a job – don’t take a pension.
The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:
“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”
A policy vacuum
The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”.
So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.
What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive.
This Tuesday evening I was invited to be one of four Ideas Experts at the showcase event of Nightriders in Glasgow. Initiated and hosted by Snook, Nightriders is a mentoring and support programme for emergent entrepreneurs “designed to help people see in the dark and navigate their way through Scotland’s enterprise support landscape”. It was an inspiring and uplifting evening, and there is a Storify which captures the spirit of the evening and the reactions of those who attended.
It should be easy to navigate your way from a sound idea to a viable sustainable business. But the reality is that it is far from easy. In Scotland there are around four hundred bodies and programmes set up to support new enterprise. Nightriders has been established to help those who have a business idea, but don’t know where to start. And it draws directly on the experience of the Snook founders who had find their own way through the tangle of advice and support to establish one of Scotland’s leading Service Design companies.
Nightriders is a novel approach to enterprise support that harnesses the power of networks, design thinking and business skills. It is not seeking to replace existing programmes or support structures, but rather “we are focusing on building confident communities who will take their ideas to the next level on their own or with these existing organisations”. That’s all well and good and reads like good copy – but when one of the Nightriders said ‘This is the most confident I’ve ever felt’, and you could sense she was speaking for them all, then it’s a claim worth taking seriously.
Scotland is currently enjoying something of an enterprise revolution, with a remarkable turnaround in entrepreneurship in the last few years. Scotland wasn’t just a poor performer in terms on new business startups in the UK – but in Europe generally. But things have changed. Between 2012 and 2013 there was a 19% increase in new business registrations, and the current total of 340,000 businesses operating in Scotland is the highest since records began. Indeed I have celebrated the achievements of some of Dundee’s creative entrepreneurs in another post on this blog.
Interestingly, we have entrepreneurship going full throttle in two different age groups. Gen Y wants to control its own destiny, and sees start up culture as the indy alternative. This is an enterprise culture that is well analysed and discussed. But far less attention is paid to the enterprising Boomers. The baby boomer generation accounts for over 1.8 million people in Scotland – but 40% of them have yet to save for their retirement. With the corporate and public sectors trying to shed these older more expensive employees, there may well be over one million people financially unprepared for their retirement. Increasingly, we will see baby boomers, retiring into work. For both of these age groups entrepreneurship is driven by both individual and social motivations. From the evidence of this week, Nightriders is meeting the needs of these diverse new enterprise communities.
Nightriders works by linking business skills together with design thinking, all underpinned by the power of networking. In doing this, it provides a highly refreshing contrast to many business start up programmes that focus purely on business skills for an individual entrepreneur. What was remarkable in Tuesday was witnessing the fearless approach of the Nightriders, presenting ambitious but well thought through proposals.
Too many businesses are simply not designed. They may be planned. They may just happen. But the priority must be to apply the thinking, ideas, methods and tools that we all use every day – those from design and networking – to helping create sustainable enterprise.
There is a considerable challenge we face – particularly in the so-called creative sector. 75% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year. There are indeed many reasons for this, not surprisingly the over-supply of artists in the first place. But on the evidence of this survey reported on this week in The Scotsman, the vast majority of those working in Scotland’s creative industries do so as hobbyists rather than sustainable entrepreneurs. With the right kind of support, that could fundamentally change. Nightriders represents a new model of support that meets the needs of Scotland’s new enterprise communities.
Interesting blog post over at the Royal Society of Arts that picks up on recent UK employment data. An edited extract is below.
“New data from the Business Population Estimates highlights a remarkable amount of growth in the number of one-man makers… The population of manufacturing firms with zero employees (i.e. just the owners) has increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 3 years alone, mostly in the last 12 months. By 2013 there were 50,000 more one-man makers than there were in 2010. This stands in stark contrast with the other manufacturing firm sizes, which have all shrunk in number… But what’s causing the boom? One explanation is that the proliferation of 3D printers is finally taking hold…”
OK, if it was me I would have preferred the phrase “one person makers”, but let’s move onto the substantive argument here. There is very little data to go on, but to claim that 3D printers have created 50,000 new one person manufacturing enterprises seems speculative in the extreme. However, I would say that there is something interesting happening and that technology has something to do with it – but enabling it, not causing it.
I’ve made the case before that in our world of Kickstarter, social media, flexible production systems, Amazon, Etsy and the like, then it has never been easier to finance, promote, manufacture and distribute. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – Economies of Unscale: Why Business Has Never Been Easier for the Little Guy – makes this very case: “in a world with economies of unscale, we are empowered to take advantage of an extensive array of new, amazing services to build sustainable companies.”
From my perspective, one of the most significant aspects of the new enterprise landscape are the opportunities for collaboration and co-operative enterprise. We are not simply witnessing the invasion of a hoard of solo businesses all out for themselves like neo-Thatcherite zombies. In my home city of Dundee, collaborative networks and workspaces like Fleet Collective and Vanilla Ink provide co-operative frameworks that enable and support individual enterprise. And of course we find them throughout the world. Ironically as the UK Co-operative Movement lurches into an ever-worse crisis, so the principles of co-operation are being applied in new and highly relevant ways by a new generation of makers. These new entrepreneurs are not out for themselves. They are out for each other, recognising the value of sharing expertise, skills and celebrations of success. And money.
Kickstarter isn’t driving change – but it’s enabling that change to transform the financing of enterprise, pulling the gift economy into the mainstream. The latest data from Kickstarter suggests this is not trivial finance. To date over $1 billion has been pledged on Kickstarter, and design projects alone have brought in $127 million of support. The success rate for design projects is a remarkable 38%. Kickstarter’s first month of operating in the UK (which is the only data available) shows something else very significant. For US projects, 78% of backers have been from the US and 22% outside of it, yet in the UK 39% of backers have come from within the UK and 61% have come from outside of it. The gift economy transcends immediate family and friends. It transcends the idea of nation. The gift economy is global.
The new making economy is very diverse, and increasingly female. More than half of the 573,000 people who joined the ranks of the self-employed between 2008 and 2013 are women. A new generation of self-employed multi-tasking enterprising mothers have been dubbed mumpreneurs, and are driving change and new patterns of work and childcare in many communities. So, a trivial development perhaps? Well, not trivial when data suggests mumpreneurs contribute £7.4bn to the UK economy each year. Again, this is all tied in to collaboration and mutual support.
Yes, 3D printing does represent an emergent revolution in the world of manufacturing, and this will surely transform opportunities for makers in the years ahead. But it is the far more significant and well established revolution in the world of entrepreneurship that is promoting and sustaining new business in the manufacture of crafted, bespoke and small batch production. In co-working spaces and on kitchen tables people are collaborating and supporting each other to make a living making things. And that collaboration and support is fanning out across the world. It’s an internationalism of making – in the making!
The Design Transitions book (co-authored by Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Lauren Tan) captures stories of how design practices are changing from different perspectives and context, featuring 42 stories covering 6 design disciplines and 16 countries. The book is about conversations on how design is changing.
At the Design Transitions book launch, held in London in December, there was a panel discussion with some of those included in the book: Dan Harris from Fjord, Lulu Kitololu from Asilia, Tori Flower from We are what we do, Joanna Choukier from Uscreates, Andrea Siodmok from Design Synthesis and me. This is included in full in this video:
Internationally renowned jeweller Jane Gowans and I would like you to join us in conversation about how craft adds value – and how to add value to your own creative practice – at an afternoon symposium in St Andrews, Fife on 1 March 2014
The symposium is a special event to accompany the exhibition Added Value – a British Crafts Council touring exhibition, presented by Fife Contemporary Art & Craft at St Andrews Gateway. The exhibition questions the value of high quality contemporary craft within the contexts of branding and luxury. Invited to conceive a symposium, Jane’s vision was a creative response to the exhibition which complements its core theme. Craft in Conversation will discuss the ways in which craft can enhance industry, community and wellbeing alongside collective and individual creative practices.
Jane invited me to chair the event and work with her in developing a programme that is both inspiring and engaging. We have pulled together a programme that we believe will give you some vital insights into the value of craft, and some vital tools in adding value to your own practice. The afternoon is divided into three parts:
We begin the symposium with three expert speakers who each present perspectives of how craft adds value in different ways.
- Adding Value to Creative Wellbeing Dr Frances Stevenson – Head of Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design – will present key findings from a 5 year research project on craft’s contribution to creative wellbeing.
- Adding Value to Community Jill Skulina – Dundee based maker and artist – will draw on her extensive and diverse experience of using art, craft and creative practices in a community context.
- Adding Value to Industry Fi Scott – creator of Make Works – last year undertook a 3 month tour of 116 makers and manufacturers in Scotland and has unique insights to share on the future of craft in 21st century Scotland.
Following these presentations you have the opportunity to join three 20 minute conversations with individuals behind some significant new initiatives in Scottish craft and creative practice. These include:
- Richard Clifford – Director at MAKlab, Scotland’s Digital Fabrication Studio in Glasgow
- Sarah Stewart – Designer at Scottish Linen, a new contemporary brand based on a traditional Fife manufacturer.
- Lisa Cresswell – Design researcher in the Design in Action team, University of Dundee.
Adding value to your practice
The final part of the afternoon provides a framework to develop a personal strategy that adds value to your creative practice.
- Lauren Currie is Director and co-founder of Snook, Scotland’s leading service design consultancy. Lauren has run workshops all over the world, including an acclaimed session at Craft Scotland’s inaugural conference.
Jane and I are confident that the event will be provocative and inspiring – but above all positive and constructive. And did I tell you it’s free?
For the event to work as we hope, participant numbers are limited, so if you are interested please register at the Eventbrite page.