Cover Stories

Stripping Down

gtw070313In the new book, ‘The Rise of the Naked Economy,’ local authors Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner examine the transformation of how people do work

Over the past decade, the modern workplace has undergone profound transformations. The traditional models that enveloped employees, like regular work hours, office cubicles, full-time work weeks, and benefit packages, have fallen away, forcing many to take multiple part-time jobs, or proffer their services as independent contractors. According to Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner, the authors of the new book “The Rise of the Naked Economy”— they are also the founders of Santa Cruz’s NextSpace—the loss of traditional workplace infrastructures can feel a lot like being caught in your birthday suit, totally naked and vulnerable.

“But,” Coonerty quips, sitting back on a couch at the NextSpace headquarters in Downtown Santa Cruz, “It can also mean a lot of really good times.”

Coonerty’s co-author and business associate, Neuner, shoots him a funny look and rolls his eyes. For the record, everyone in the room is clothed.

In their book, Coonerty and Neuner delve into the occasionally frightening changes in the economy, the forces they believe have contributed to the transformation, and how many people, despite the changes, are leveraging new technologies, new rules, and new expectations, to pioneer new paths to success.

Apparently every stormy cloud has its silver lining. 

The authors use nakedness as an analogy to describe a new workplace economy, a model that hinges on people working without the old company-provided identities and amenities—like a stripping away of all the traditional workplace “clothing,” Neuner says.

In place of the old infrastructures, a new means of doing business is rising—a movement  described as the “New Mutualism,” says Coonerty, a lecturer on law for UC Santa Cruz and former mayor for the City of Santa Cruz. The idea of the New Mutualism is that, as wrap-around support organizations that provided their employees with turnkey environments become less and less common, individuals are seizing the initiative to support each other.

The term the New Mutualism was coined by Sarah Horwitz, founder of the Freelancers Union in New York, which helps freelance workers organize to collectively purchase affordable insurance, most notably health care. But another example of the cover Ryan coonertyNew Mutualism, reflected prominently at NextSpace, is enabling face-to-face community—a physical place where people can come together, share ideas, values and goals.

“People come [to NextSpace] for the professional work space, but they stay for the community,” Neuner says. “It’s community that really captures the idea of the New Mutualism.”           

Neuner and Coonerty describe a kind of basic recipe for success in “The Rise of the Naked Economy” called the “smart generalist-super specialist dichotomy.”

A key result of people mixing it up in community spaces like NextSpace—or in coffee shops, school libraries or meet-ups for that matter—is connecting people who have similar interests and goals but a variety of different aptitudes and skills. Summarily, they describe a fusion between generalists and specialists—the people who look at systems as a whole, like designing and framing a house, and the people with niche skill sets, who, to keep up the metaphor, hammer in the nails.

Feeding The New Hunger

In the book, the authors interview Sol Lipman, an entrepreneur who, while working at NextSpace in 2009, met an independent graphic designer, a project manager, a few programmers, and a couple of mobile application developers. Together, they teamed up and founded Rally Up, “a social network that allows users to send status updates via their smart phones to a small group of ‘real friends.’”

Rally Up quickly garnered national attention and the founders cashed out for a hefty profit, selling the company to tech giant AOL in 2010.

Neuner and Coonerty say this is an example of what they call the “NextSpace Effect.”

“It becomes a stew of people trading ideas—supporting each other,” Neuner says. “I think people are really hungry for real live genuine community, so let’s get back to what we’re hardwired for.”

cover Ryan and Jeremy2A form of mutual support is taking place on every level of face-to-face interaction, he says, from a couple of people sitting around having coffee and relating their experiences as freelancers, all the way up to people starting companies and creating real and tangible economic output. Paradoxically, the Naked Economy calls upon workers to be more self-reliant, but simultaneously pushes people to rely more on each other.

“Instead of looking to government, or companies, to provide for us, let’s provide for each other,” Neuner says. “Let’s collectively buy health care. Let’s collectively create retirement plans. Let’s collectively have work spaces where we can form a community and support each other. And that’s what we think the new strategy for this economy is.”

“You have to invest more in yourself,” Coonerty adds. “You have to be strategic and do all of the same things you would for a startup for almost any career.”

Neuner comes back: “You’re no longer organizing people around a company. You’re organizing people around specific ideas and goals.”

The shift toward worker independence has two facets, Coonerty says. The first is economic. Many companies have exploited new technologies to outsource their labor, relying more heavily on freelance specialists, which allows those companies to avoid fixed economic obligations such as salaries, employee benefits, office space, and even desks and chairs.

“It’s a way to get around the big economic pressures,” Coonerty says.

However, there is a flip side to the coin. The same technological advancements that enable companies to employ workers without offering the benefits of full-time employment are making it possible for workers to take complete control of their productive potential. Today, people can communicate, research, design, publish, and essentially be productive in a virtual workspace from any location, Coonerty says.

So, by using using the new technological tools to produce and market their ideas, products and services, independent workers are breaking free from the traditional company envelope.

“Reaching that critical mass, baby,” Neuner says triumphantly.

“Now,” Coonerty says, “you can be just as effective with a laptop and a phone on a beach as you can in a cubicle somewhere.”

“And maybe even more effective, because you’re happy,” Neuner adds. “happy at work—imagine that.”

Rolling With The Re-invented Wheel

Ben Gran, a former technical writer for a nationally recognized bank, interviewed in Chapter 3, was not happy at work. He describes working a 9 to 5 in his windowless, florescent-lit office—a dismal place. Though he had a good salary and health benefits, his job was beginning to feel more and more like a prison.

“I started having panic attacks at my desk,” he says. “I kept breaking down in tears in meetings with my boss. The environment was killing me.”

Ninety percent of the work he was doing could have been done remotely, he says.

A year later, Gran quit his job and became a freelance writer, effectively marketing himself and selling his work to support his family. He believes the transition helped him become a better worker, father and husband.

cover JeremyFor people like Gran, Coonerty says, those traditional infrastructures were “trappings” rather than benefits. “Ben Gran is now a free man,” the book reads.

One trait of the Naked Economy has been the need for people to pull their livelihoods together from multiple sources, working multiple types of jobs for multiple employers, which Coonerty believes is conducive to a well-rounded, happy life.

Coonerty, a two-time mayor, co-founder of a company, teacher, and author, says his diverse work output is reflective of the shift. “If I piece all those things together, I can pay a mortgage,” he says. “To me it’s ideal because every day is different and interesting. I can be involved with the community, be part of a great company, teach, it allows me to spend my time in the most interesting way possible, as opposed to one thing all day long.”

Another economic development is the chance for people to break out of their molds, or the directions their backgrounds and training deem appropriate, says Neuner.  Before NextSpace and Santa Cruz, Neuner was an officer and helicopter pilot for the U.S. Navy—you know, “flying on and off aircraft carriers all the time.” Then he attended graduate school at Harvard University.  He says that, with that background, the professional, economic world pigeonholed him as a guy on a national security trajectory.

“The clothed economy, so to speak, worked really well when you could easily fit round pegs into round holes,” he says. “You’re a doctor, you’re an accountant, you’re a security guy, you’re this, you’re that. When the economy works like that, you can put everybody in their place.”

The Naked Economy does not dictate such terms, he says. There is considerably more free range in what, how, and when people work. Neuner also notes that, to fully grasp the essence of an economy and how ours has been changing, it is important to understand human history, which he sees as a simple exchange of a fee for a service.

“Work is an exchange of your time and talent for pay, and it always has been,” Neuner says. “We describe in the book this 100,000-year-long history of human work, whether it’s a paycheck, or an extra slice of mammoth meat. That’s what work has been for 99 percent of the time, and it’s only been the last 100 years or so where we’ve put all this ‘clothing’ around work—benefits, vacation time, 401Ks, and all this stuff. This shift sort of strips work back down to its bare essence.”

In reference to the accouterments that padded people’s traditional forms of employment, Coonerty says “It was nice for the last 50 years while that happened. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only model.”

While Coonerty says that to some degree, almost every industry will be influenced by this shift in the economy, some sectors lend themselves to the transformation more than others, most notably the information economy.

The way people and businesses share and obtain information has undergone the most dramatic changes. The ability for someone to work remotely just as effectively as someone who sits in an office is a real game changer.  “It’s a little more difficult to do that when you’re running a restaurant,” Coonerty says. “But even there, technology has allowed people to manage their businesses more independently.”

“It’s not going to be universal,” Neuner says, “but as work shifts in some of these sectors, you’ll get an overall shift in mentality about how people make a living and make a life”

Every industry has to prepare for the shift, Coonerty adds, noting that one purpose of the book is to redefine what it means to be an independent worker.

“There’s a huge stigma out there that freelancers are people who can’t get real jobs,” he says. “A big part of what we’re trying to do is not only reverse that stigma, but also to show people that for half the population at least, this is what a real job looks like from now on. We see people living and working, naked, metaphorically, and we want to recognize that this is the new economy. So let’s figure out how to make it work for everybody.”

As the new economy develops, there are demographics actively helping to shape it by making the work systems fit their lifestyle needs.

There are a huge number of Baby Boomers—people between the ages of 55 and 65—who are currently exiting the traditional, full-time workforces that they grew up with, but still want to work in a different capacity. Many of them are turning to freelance opportunities, Coonerty says.

There are also the “Millennials,” people in their twenties and thirties, many of whom are pursuing work differently than their parents and grandparents did.

cover Rise of the Naked Economy“A lot of those younger people are choosing where they want to live before finding a job,” he says. “They’re representative of a cultural shift.”

“Then you have young parents who are two-income households, and they can’t work all the time with long commutes and be away from their kids,” Coonerty goes on. “They’re demanding a different way to work. And if we can build the right structures around that, it would be hugely beneficial to everybody. It’s this kind of awakening—of, ‘Why am I doing this, slogging away in a cubicle, not being happy, not having time to have meaningful relationships with my spouse, my kids, my neighbors. Why?’”

Both Neuner and Coonerty concede that while there is much excitement and energy surrounding the changes to the economy, the new outfit—or lack thereof—is nerve-racking.

“The hard part is that it’s a lot of change and it’s happening very quickly,” Coonerty says. “And it seems out of people’s control. But by highlighting the people we do in the book, we illustrate that you can take control of it. You can live your life by your own terms.”

The most important takeaway: From the very beginning, people are in control of their careers, Neuner says.

“That can be wonderfully empowering, and at the same time be awfully scary,” he says. “You could be the architect of your own demise, or the architect of your own awesome, amazing success. I really believe that by adopting this new way to work—by embracing the Naked Economy—we’re actually creating a stronger, more robust, more resilient, more innovative and more interesting society along the way.”

Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner will speak about their book, “The Rise of the Naked Economy” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-0900. Learn more at Catch our interview with Coonerty and Neuner on our YouTube Channel—GTvSC—and/or Community Television Santa Cruz County (8 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 27). Photos: Jeremy Bot

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