Everyone knows work is changing, but it’s the breadth and magnitude of that change that we’ve yet to fully understand. That’s especially true when you look to independent workers in this country. The U.S. workforce is now 35 percent freelance, and it’s growing quickly. In February, Deloitte reported that 51 percent of executives planned to hire freelancers more this year than they did in 2015.
What these statistics don’t tell you is how many of these independent professionals don’t fit the freelancing millennial stereotype we’ve all come to know. There are a lot of millennials opting for gigs as on-demand drivers and personal shoppers, but that’s not an accurate picture of the “average” freelancer. Because, while this portion of the professional workforce is growing, it’s also diversifying.
Professionals at every level, from every industry, are choosing go independent and that means baby boomers too. In fact, 30 percent of freelancers are over the age of 52. Boomers are embracing the freelance life with open arms. And, it turns out, there’s a huge need for consultants with their skills.
This isn’t news to Antoinette Forth, who co-founded Walkabout Collaborative, an organization that provides knowledge, support, and technology to help executives and other experienced professionals leave traditional, full-time roles behind and launch entirely new kinds of careers for themselves.
Primarily, Walkabout Collective creates products (like Walkabout Office) to help consultants find and engage with businesses that need their skills. Walkabout Collaborative also helps those new to the independent workforce adjust to this newfound freedom and find ways to keep motivated and productive. “It’s a place where they can come for sales support, to get encouragement, or to learn the ropes of being on your own and what that means,” Forth says.
Her own career backstory includes more than 25 years of traditional roles within marketing, sales, customer relationship management, business development, and management. But it wasn’t until after she left her corporate career and began consulting that Forth discovered there were plenty of experienced professionals interested in taking their careers into the independent realm, they just didn’t know how. By founding Walkabout Collaborative, Forth carved out a place for an entire generation that’s been largely ignored and misunderstood in this area.
Forth says that one of the biggest misconceptions about baby boomers shifting to consulting work is that they’re only doing so because they were laid off or want to be semi-retired. The truth is that of all the generations, it’s the baby boomers who are going freelance out of choice more often than any other generation. Far from the story of the reluctant-to-change baby boomer, clutching to an outdated way of working, this generation is eager to try a more autonomous way.
We spoke to Forth about this growing segment of freelance boomers, the changing nature of work, and what she sees happening to jobs as the future unfolds.
How did you get started with Walkabout Collaborative?
After I left my corporate career and started consulting, people I knew started asking me how I managed it and whether I could help them do the same thing. I did, and I started paying attention to the online freelance marketplaces. I concluded that they really weren’t appropriate for the skillset of the type of person I was working with—someone that maybe was a senior manager at a call center or a project management executive. My partner, who happens to be a former consulting client, and I decided to start Walkabout Collaborative as a collective of people who wanted to go out on their own.
Tell us about the tech piece of Walkabout.
One of the things we found was that the consultants we work with aren’t digital natives, and we wanted to make the technology experience easy for them. We built a virtual office, an online tool for the consultants to use with clients. It’s like having an office in the cloud, your clients can come to your virtual office for a meeting, we have a Coach’s Corner where you can ask questions and trade advice, and we have a contract center with sample contracts and statements of work.
Does Walkabout Collaborative function more like a traditional staffing agency in the way that it operates, finds work, etc.?
It’s a little bit different. We support our consultants in every way, even from a sales standpoint. Unlike most online marketplaces that are out there, we have a sales team selling the services of these consultants. And the work is usually project and outcome based. Clients call us up and say they’re looking to turn their call center agents into brand ambassadors and they’d like to know how they can facilitate that. Our consultants make them a plan and show them how to implement that plan.
Do you notice boomers approaching the structure of their day differently than younger generations?
It’s all experimentation. It’s kind of like going from high school to college. You suddenly have to be really disciplined because no one is checking up on you, making sure you’re paying attention and doing the work. And you have to test different approaches, you know, standing workspaces or working for 20 minutes and then getting up to do something physical. I will say that I see boomers working almost exclusively from their home offices. I’d like to see them get out more and try different work environments and co-working spaces.
Would you say boomers are adjusting as easily to freelancing, or has that been a tough transition for them?
I think becoming a freelancer after having a full-time career is a tough transition. You need to motivate yourself, reward yourself and find your own satisfaction. It’s actually a good thing for self-development. It’s not easy but you learn about yourself. Actually, I think younger generations are at a bigger disadvantage. I think one of the challenges for millennials is that they’ve never had (or they haven’t had to a large extent) that in-office experience that we’ve had. They’ve not dealt with politics and office dynamics. So they don’t necessarily have that skill set to help them with their clients who may be working within traditional office environments in command & control organization structures.
What’s the most common challenge you see your consultants facing when they make the switch?
Just knowing where to start, getting the roadmap on how to launch, how to price themselves, and how to position their value within the marketplace. It’s difficult to talk about yourself and what you do; they have to become salespeople and they’re the product. It’s helping them get the confidence to do that.
Do your consultants struggle with imposter syndrome? And have you experienced it ever?
Yes. I mean I still run into that today. Here’s an example: We’re currently going out for funding for the technology piece of the organization. We’re approaching angel investors and venture capital firms to ask them for two million dollars. And I’ve never done that before, so I read everything I can, I talk to a ton of people, and then I attend these events with 200 people, five of which are women—most of them entrepreneurs already, or lawyers. And I feel like a total imposter in that room, but I know that that’s the place I need to be if I want to get funding. I have to go to that meeting and I have to claim my place at that table and I have to make sure that I’m prepared. So yes, I think that’s natural and I think that is something that continues especially if you continue to up your game. I don’t think it ever goes away.
If you decide you’re just going to stay where you are and stick with the status quo, then you probably won’t feel like an impostor, but if you keep pushing yourself to the next level, you’re always going to have that feeling. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I feel like I’m the queen of the world. I think that would be boring. I like a good challenge.
When you look at the future of work what do you see? What are the challenges ahead?
Once we can figure out the health care, retirement and the education pieces of it, we’ll be okay. You really have to teach people how to build and manage their own careers; high schools and colleges don’t do that. I think you’re always going to have companies that have full-time employees. But, I see different skills being more on demand; specialty skills, like planning, for example. Strategic planning in an organization—you don’t have someone all the time doing that, you need those people late summer, and maybe into the fall and then not again for another year. I see a lot of that kind of seasonal knowledge working well with the on-demand model.
Somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, then.
It’s going to be a combination. We have a long way to go before government, education, and everything else catches up. But there’s a big opportunity to coordinate the uncoordinated. Kaihan Krippendorff wrote a book called: Outthink the Competition: How a New Generation of Strategists Sees Options Others Ignore. In it, he talks about the people who coordinate the uncoordinated, that they are going to make money in the future. We’re talking Angie’s List, Uber, Parking Panda—the types of companies that are coordinating people out in the marketplace, that’s where the money is going to be. Staffing companies, on-demand talent platforms and the like are going to be the winners.