Let’s discuss the new economy in the 'coffice'

NEW ORDER: Public places, such as cafes and libraries, have been colonised by digital nomads, especially in cities.  Picture: Ken Irwin
NEW ORDER: Public places, such as cafes and libraries, have been colonised by digital nomads, especially in cities. Picture: Ken Irwin

We all know how hard it is for young people to find somewhere affordable to live in Australia’s high-rent cities. But what about the challenge of finding a space to work?

In recent history, there has been a decline in secure jobs and a spectacular rise in freelancing. Many companies prefer to outsource work to freelancers – particularly in the knowledge/creative industries – in order to avoid providing the benefits to which employees are entitled, like leave, superannuation and training. They are also freed from providing workplaces.

Freelancers must find their own. Some work at home but this doesn’t suit everyone. Many live in flats or share houses with no room for a home office. Others simply prefer to undertake the daily ritual of commuting, to mark a spatial and temporal border between home and work. There are good socio-psychological reasons for this preference.

A defining feature of modern societies is the clear separation between public and private. Home is traditionally a place of retreat, of family life and leisure. And despite all the utopian predictions about telecommuting, many of us find we are not so productive when working at home. This partly explains why random public places have been colonised by digital nomads. Cafes have become “coffices”, filled with people staring at laptop screens. Libraries resemble open-plan offices. 

Freelance squatting is not ideal. Many would prefer to be conventionally employed and travel to a fixed place of work. But in fields like architecture, design, media, new graduates fall off a cliff into oversupplied labour markets. For those who cannot get jobs setting up as a freelancer is often the only way to find professional work.

From a neo-liberal point of view, the gig economy is a market nirvana of enterprise and innovation. But in an age where digital platforms generate global competition between knowledge workers, many highly trained professionals subsist on very low incomes. Additionally, the social isolation associated with freelancing does little to promote the innovation and creativity on which the economic renewal of Western economies will be based. 

The philosophy of co-work has emerged in response. The first co-work centre was opened in San Francisco in 2005. It was based on the guiding ethical tenets of “collaboration, openness, community, accessibility and sustainability”. 

The annual co-work survey by Deskmag found that 1.7 million people are members of co-work centres globally, a number which has more than tripled over three years. The majority are found in big cities, particularly in the inner urban hubs.

But many inner-city co-work spaces are in repurposed industrial buildings, earmarked for redevelopment. Co-work spaces are vulnerable to rent rises caused by increased demand and gentrification. Through this process precarious creative workers can be driven away from the urban economic hubs where they are likely to build contacts and eventually make a living.

So, if governments are serious about meeting the infrastructure needs of the new economy they should provide subsidies for inner-city co-working. This will enhance the prospects of a generation of talented graduates whose skills and talents might otherwise go to waste.

George Morgan is Associate Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.