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The Redefinition of Work

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As Barack Obama was recently inaugurated to his second term as president of the United States of America, we are all reminded about the primary challenges facing the American people: jobs and the economy. Indeed, unemployment is hovering near 8 percent, with 12 million Americans unemployed, and the percentage of Americans with traditional jobs is at a 20-year low. Fortunately, new ways to earn income are emerging, suggesting a "redefinition of work" that is less based on traditional jobs and can create sustainable income in the face of high unemployment.

Even though the current job picture may sound bleak, MIT economists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson warn that improvements in technology may cause unemployment problems to persist or worsen, even as the economy improves. In fact, they suggest that we are seeing a "jobless recovery," with the economy larger than it's ever been, without a corresponding recovery for jobs.

Technology may be to blame for this phenomenon, as increased automation in recent years has seen many routine, middle-expertise jobs being automated (think: automated call centers and self-service airline check-in). Indeed the tasks that automation or robots can complete are expanding. A high-tech, heavily automated distribution center in Devens, Mass. now runs with about 100 employees along side 69 robots that complete work faster and more efficiently than humans ever could. To replace the robots, they would need to hire 1.5 people per robot.

While finding a traditional job may seem harder than ever for the average American, it has never been easier to be an entrepreneur and earn income from non-traditional sources. For a growing number of people, this will mean leveraging new and easier opportunities to generate income on their own terms, regardless of their skills, geography, or level of ambition. By 2020, one in three people will work online as opposed to in an office, evidence that a growing number Americans are looking past traditional jobs to make ends meet, and potentially even improve their quality of life.

Perhaps the most interesting new opportunities lie in an increasing number of platforms that can instantly turn almost anyone into a "micro" entrepreneur, generating income from idle time, skills, or assets. There are many names for this trend, including Collaborative Consumption, or the Sharing Economy, but regardless of what you call it, the trend represents creating value from idleness or waste.

If you've got a car, you could earn $3,000-$10,000 per year by renting it out to your neighbors through the peer-to-peer carsharing marketplace, RelayRides. When the car isn't being rented, you could earn an extra $9,000 per year by giving rides on a part-time basis through Lyft, an on-call ride-sharing startup. With a bit of spare time, TaskRabbit could earn you $24,000 per year completing a few tasks per day for your neighbors, (everything from grocery delivery to IKEA furniture assembly), or you could pull out your smartphone and get paid to do a small task for a large company, like taking a picture of inventory on a shelf, through GigWalk. Out of town for a weekend here and there? Renting out your apartment through Airbnb nets the average San Franciscan $6,900-$9,300 annually.

If you have specialized skills, new platforms provide even more income opportunities. oDesk is the world's largest online workplace, with over 2.7M freelancers, where companies seek contractors specializing in everything from web development to sales and marketing. 800,000 virtual stores on Etsy, a marketplace for handmade goods, netted over $500M in 2011.

While it may be difficult to support yourself off of the earnings of any single platform mentioned above, when taken together, people can earn enough to support themselves and thrive, all while choosing opportunities that align with their skills and interests. The flexibility provided by these income streams means a higher quality of life for many, and allows people to pursue interests or education they couldn't have while employed by a full time job. Further, while freelancing may seem less stable than a traditional job, a "portfolio" approach to income through multiple sources could actually prove to be more secure.

While the current economic environment may make it difficult to find a job, it's easier than ever to move past the job search and create the opportunities you're looking for. The tools, resources, and platforms are plentiful and easily accessible. So, the only question that remains is, what are you waiting for?

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and MassChallenge. MassChallenge is the largest-ever startup accelerator and the first to support early-stage entrepreneurs with no strings attached. For more information (2013 application deadline: April 3), please visit: http://www.masschallenge.org