The recent tempest in a coffee mug over Dolly Parton’s celebration of the gig economy revealed a problem with the English language today: A worker is no longer a worker.
Today, nearly 60 million people are entrepreneurial in some way. The vast majority inhabit the frontlines of the economy. They are freelancers or the late-night business starters that Parton sang about. And they exist in the world of technology, where a single person at a kitchen table has the same power to bring an innovation to market as giant corporations did four decades ago.
But our economic and government funding debates are framed around the idea of capitalism versus socialism, corporations versus workers. That increasingly divisive conversation has some of the hallmarks of a deliberately engineered division, like the one over climate change and the one over gun rights. Right-wing groups with an interest in freezing the government into inaction figured out how to divide the country into two groups and get them fighting. (Big companies have often been the bedfellows of those right-wing groups, though that might be starting to change.)
Why don’t we have universal health care, parental leave, working infrastructure — all things that would, not incidentally, boost entrepreneurship and small business? We’ve been too busy fighting about a socialist takeover and the evils of capitalism.
The conflict thrives in part because we don’t have the right language to describe what’s happening now, as Victor Hwang, the founder of Right To Start, pointed out to me on a call this week as I was reporting this storyabout game-changing ideas in Washington and statehouses.
“These debates should be viewed as part of a larger discussion,” said Hwang. “We should be striving to encourage highly innovative people and companies. What are the categories we need to develop? How do you classify someone’s role in the economy?”
I think of entrepreneurs as builders. Builder is a nice word with Old English roots in the ideas “to be, exist, grow,” according to the Online Dictionary of Etymology. In a century where change is the lingua franca, builders own the value of their own labor, as mechanism to build independence and eventually, capital.