The fluid new age of the e-lancer is upon us

Taken from a speech by the founder of www elancentric com to the Social Market Foundation, in London

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In medieval days, knights who didn't want to be tied down to one particular army or location would hand in their standard-issue lances, buy a brand new one of their own and start a new, freer life of hiring out their fighting services on their own terms. They were known as freelancers and the term still exists today to describe anyone who has given up the restrictions of nine-to-five office culture and branched out on their own. The only difference is that we don't use lances anymore; increasingly, we use the internet. Hence the emergence of a new breed ­ e-lancers.

E-lancers are internet-enabled home and mobile workers who rely on the internet to organise their work and communicate with colleagues. They are distributed between training and recruitment, the professions, consultancy, sales and marketing, financial services, journalism, writing and editing, as well as IT, broadcasting, the arts and the therapy movement.

Their defining experience is that they either work from home or on the road, and are reliant on the internet ­ PCs or even WAP mobile phones ­ to organise and run their working lives. So, while the quintessential e-lancer is a "SoHo" worker ­ self-employed and working from home ­ remote workers for large organisations are also e-lancers.

According to the Institute for Employment Studies, "knowledge work" is forecast to increase its share of work distribution from 37 per cent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2006. The growth sectors of the economy are small businesses and self-employment, and, partly because of this, work is being relocated nearer to the home or is going mobile. E-lancers are not just micro-businesses, they are also pioneers of the new economy, establishing new ways of working and redefining relationships at work and at home, between organisations, freelancers, suppliers and consumers.

For Generation X ­ the twenty- and thirtysomethings ­ self-reliance through self-employment, entrepreneurship and e-lancing has often seemed more desirable than selling their soul to large organisations, and is a means of creating some semblance of security in a risky and volatile world of work.

E-lancers, by definition, move fluidly across boundaries. Some people will take to e-lancing like ducks to water. For others, e-lancing is always likely to be an interim solution, a time of transition before moving on to the next big thing. But the point is a simple one: the route into and out of e-lancing and back again is likely to become a well-trodden one.

There is now a considerable amount of élan in e-lancing. It's a sexy way of working but it's also practical and in tune with the lifestyle to which more and more people aspire.

Today, the typical e-lancer is a white, male fortysomething mobile self-employed professional. With the advent of WAP technologies, tomorrow's e-lancers are as likely to be cleaners as creatives, and plumbers as knowledge professionals, in an entrepreneurial and thriving e-lancer-to-e-lancer service economy.

At the last industrial revolution, new associations ­ trade guilds, mutual associations and unions ­ emerged to represent and advocate for the lifestyle needs of the industrial worker. We too are living in a watershed era: we need new networks, new associations and new organisational forms to reflect the new world of work and the role e-lancers play in it. At a time when more and more organisations are becoming elancentric™, it is vital that the learning, knowledge and experience of our pioneer e-lancers is tapped and harvested.

By promoting cross-fertilisation we will also be able to foster a vibrant business-to-business, e-lancer-to-e-lancer service economy. If the new economy is to live up to its potential, government and business together must respond to the needs of this crucial group of change agents.

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