Associations of the future?

When I read this article in today's Boston Globe, I couldn't help but wonder if this may in fact be where associations are -- or perhaps should be? -- headed: The End of the Office and the Future of Work. The basic premise is that we're moving away from the old business model (you get a job and work for a company that provides salary, benefits, etc.) and into one where jobs are chopped into pieces and fed to a growing army of freelancers. It's fascinating stuff. But when you lose the old employment model, you also lose the security, the bennies, and the sense of belonging to a community of sorts. From the article:

But to provide a greater level of stability freelance workers may require a new kind of institutional ally. Malone predicts that the growth in freelance work will necessitate a different breed of labor union to provide some of the benefits the employer now offers. Today’s unions are largely defined by their role in collective bargaining - negotiating with employers for better benefits, conditions, and pay. But many early unions actually arose in industries like construction or the garment trade where workers didn’t work for the same employer for very long, so the longstanding relationship wasn’t with the employer but the union.

These unions were more like guilds: organizations, united by a common set of specialized work skills, that combined elements of a social club and a mutual aid society. And rather than pressuring employers to provide benefits, they provided them directly. Malone argues that this sort of guild would be well-suited to a work landscape in which more workers are freelance. Such organizations might even see fit to offer income-smoothing insurance policies where freelancers can in good times pay into a fund that then helps them through leaner periods.

This sounds like a good fit for the association world to me. Of course, they'll also be in the business of meetings. Freelancing can be tough on a lot of people due to the isolation of working remotely, or mostly solo, or both, so companies using freelancers, associations, and/or guilds will also likely include community-builders and ways for people to connect (i.e., meetings). More from the article:

Some of the online freelance companies try to tackle this. Most have online forums through which they try to recreate some of the dynamics of an actual workplace. iStockphoto goes further, organizing “iStockalypses” for select groups of its photographers: weeklong gatherings in exotic locales worldwide that are part party and part photo shoot. And iStockphoto photographers have begun organizing regional “Minilypses” on their own as a way to pool resources for photo shoots, to share information and simply to socialize.

Freelancers Union’s attempts to knit its members together socially are more conventional. Last month the organization held a holiday party in New York, and 150 or so people showed up. It was, says Horowitz, an enthusiastic crowd. “These people hadn’t been to a holiday party because they had been freelancing for years,” says Horowitz. “They want to feel connected, they want to feel that they’re part of something.”

At least that isn't likely to change.

Update: A colleague just reminded me that we covered a similar idea in an article a few years ago, albeit from a more generational perspective: Associations Take Aim at Generation X. A key quote:

In the current service-driven economy, where workers are less likely to band together in the form of labor unions, “we're going to find that associations are going to be a more common type of social capital building and a pretty indispensable resource for professionals,” [Arthur Brooks, PhD, associate professor of public administration and director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University] contends. “People might be hungry for a different source of community.”

He believes that associations are representative of the new “idea” economy. “We're talking about the golden years of workplace-based social capital with associations smack in the middle of it.”

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