Freelancing gives you freedom. Typically, freedom to work from wherever you choose. But is it also fulfilling its promise of bringing more and better quality of work to rural areas?
European regions are experiencing a new wave of independent working and the trend is growing. Coworking spaces have sprung up in towns across the continent and new freelance professions are emerging.
As unusual suspects, freelancers could eventually resolve some of the most urgent rural development issues. Many of them are ditching cities to relocate in rural Europe. In fact, with the emergence of online freelancing sites, one no longer needs to move to the capital or a major city to find a job.
Decentralisation of Employment
Smaller cities in Europe are confronted with a number of problems which menace their very existence: inhabitants are moving out towards bigger cities, tax revenues are declining, industries are becoming obsolete with a consequent loss of jobs.
"Enabling remote work and freelancing could reduce the pressure caused by rising cost of living, overpopulation and congestion in bigger cities while uplifting the economies of those in decay".
Moving incomes away from bigger to smaller cities would distribute wealth efficiently and help catalyse investments in local communities.
At the beginning of the 20th century when manufacturing was the main driver of the EU economy, people were required to go to work at the same location and spend there the same amount of time each day. Large cities emerged around these industrial hubs and workers had to live in often shabby suburbs around factories, because their work demanded it. Most of the times these cities evolved into megalopolis, where current housing and the cost of living is reaching unsustainable levels.
Freelancing as a Means to Bring Prosperity to Smaller Cities
Freelancing is becoming, albeit slowly, a force that can drive local and economic rural development.
What some people are doing today would have been hard to conceive a few years ago, living in a rural area and working for themselves. Just as armies of freelancers are finding it’s easier and more cost-effective to work for themselves in Bali or Costa Rica, than for a boss in Berlin or Paris, some urban freelancers are likewise finding new incentives to resettle in rural areas in Europe.
According to the latest survey by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, while 35% of freelancers live in US cities, 47% live in the suburbs and a not inconsiderable 18% live in rural areas.
The ability to perform knowledge work from anywhere is appealing. While technology is the great enabler, the impulse is deeply human. Millennials want to work and live a life on their own terms and be the masters of their own destiny. So they can be free from long commutes, office politics, bossy bosses, and dress codes.
As Denis Pennel, Managing Director of WEC-Europe said “In an evolutionary twist that owes more than a passing nod to Karl Marx, the workers have taken back the means of production”. Artificial intelligence, virtual realities, teleworking, 3D printing and robotics will drive manufacturing and other jobs back to some of the smaller cities in Europe.
As Stephane Kasriel, Ceo of Upwork said, “If more people are able to take their big-city paycheck back to their local community, not only will their money go further, but it will help support their local economy while the rising cost of living could begin to slow in the big cities they leave behind”.
Small towns in Europe still have large advantages. They have a sense of community and the closely knitted networks that one can not find in large cities. There’s little traffic, cost of living is low, and houses are far more affordable. Also, the change of pace might be the additional upside which freelancers are looking for in rural communities. These are crucial considerations that make a difference in work-life balance.
Small Cities Should Nurture Small Businesses
Of course, making a freelance lifestyle work in a rural area comes with its challenges but challenges bring opportunities.
As Anne Loehr said: "While agriculture is facing commercial and climate-related hardship, it may seem like rural communities are either more desolate than ever or ripe for an influx of new, entrepreneurial spirit".
Many local economies in Europe adopt rural development policies to subsidise large companies by giving tax rebates and other benefits in exchange of bringing about wider employment opportunities. These strategies are counterproductive.
Investing thousands of euros in one single industry in a rural area leaves that area extremely vulnerable to mismanagement and downturns; also considering the technological risk put in something that may not always function as intended.
"Rather, by investing small amounts in many small ventures and individuals, governments are minimizing their risk. At the same time, they’re uplifting the communities they serve and improve rural development. This will help address small cities isolation, assist with rebalancing the economy away from major cities and encourage the emergence of new businesses".
Rural areas have a great potential to help people to test self-employment in a comparatively sheltered environment with little business risk and so broaden the scope for labour market participation and inclusion.
The lack of a professional community can lead to frustrating interactions, but the right infrastructures can tackle the downside. According to the IPSE manifesto, the growing movement of solo-entrepreneurs requires its own micro infrastructure, i.e. physical places to work and collaborate – and also the macro infrastructure – in the form of transport and digital infrastructure – that helps them connect and communicate with clients.
What Should Local Authorities Do?
Besides the obvious focus on acceleration or incubation programs targeting entrepreneurs with a high income generation potential, local authorities should also promote the development of infrastructures for self-employed individuals.
Operating costs of coworking spaces may sometimes be prohibitively high and in some European regions self-employed professionals do not benefit from the same tax relief other small businesses with premises have. Local authorities should promote fiscal incentives for both self-employed professionals and early stage coworking operators so they can focus on growth and long term sustainability.
Municipalities should extend planning permissions and development rights to allow underused and vacant public buildings to become coworking spaces, and increase the supply of affordable office space. For example, an online map of empty properties could promote this and improve rural development.
- Finally, to enable individuals to both become self-employed and be self-employed, technical assistance should be provided to local authorities to make full use of the Structural Funds. Investments should be earmarked for coworking infrastructures, access to high-speed broadband, reliable mobile phone reception, and effective road and rail infrastructure.
All this would make remote working easier for freelancers who need to be productive on the move and make positive rural development a reality for Europe.
As freelancing shows no signs of abating in Europe, rural areas will likely still hold their appeal – at least for those brave enough to see it.
Image Credit: Daniel Mennerich – Freilichtmuseum Hagen – CC Licence BY-NC-ND 2.0