What do those images have in common?

Quarto Stato, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo



Image courtesy of ACTA – Event “The New Fifth State”


At the top, one of the masterpieces of modern Italian art, “The fourth state” from Pelizza da Volpedo (1901) and beneath it, a contemporary theatre piece with the evocative title of “The fifth state” (2011). The “Fourth State” portrays the proletarian class, those whose only wealth is represented by their labour and their children, while in the “Fifth State” the wealth of the class of freelance knowledge workers is represented by their knowledge, symbolized by the papers hanging up their heads. Nevertheless, the latter claim to be excluded and invisible to the Italian State as much as were the proletarians one century ago.

Italy is an outlier in Europe in terms of the diffusion of self-employment: along with Greece and Turkey, it is the European country with the highest rate of freelancing, even among the highest educated workforce. If we also consider employees of small entrepreneurs, the nebula of freelancers represent about the 35% of total work. The post-industrial transition has not changed such cultural preference for being autonomous, and almost 30% of knowledge workers work in Italy as freelance professionals (at various degrees of autonomy) in the labour market (Ranci, 2012).

The world of freelance professionals is, however, on a path of deep change. The progressive deindustrialization and terziarization of the country has been promoting new figures of knowledge workers, which go beyond the traditional model of liberal professional, lawyers and doctors. As long as the post-industrial change hasn’t really affected the strong corporatist approach that Italian State has always had on the matter, the resulting situation is characterized by strong disparities between those professionals who have been recognised by the state and the so-called non-regulated professions (among which knowledge workers must be counted), without the same rights as the liberal professions.

This is one of the strongest motivation by which freelancers claim to be the residual “fifth state” in contemporary Italian society: they are excluded from the privileges of liberal professionals, while the Italian state has been incapable of setting up institutions to recognise them as competent workers. Such cleavage between professional groups has been due to how slowly Italian public regulation has adapted to the transformation of the labour markets, and the substantial incapacity of Italian governments to propose a reform on the matters against the power of already instituted professional lobbies. Professionals feel distant from the State because the partiality of a public regulation which is not able to meet their demands of protection, credentialism and fair competition. Even if there has been a tentative of establish a representative movement for freelances in Italy called ACTA (the authors of the “Fifth State”), the large majority of them remain distant even from intermediate bodies.

Such immobilism isn’t without consequences. Freelancers live a condition of social insecurity, as a result of the increasing instability of the market and a progressive precariousness of professionals. Nevertheless, as researchers we must not make the mistake of thinking them as individualistic monads in the market. They cope with the vulnerability of this situation by progressively introducing organizational logics, stolen from more traditional organizations, in their professional activities, by promoting associations of pairs to share costs and the unproductive but essential tasks of their job. What does it mean? For example, three partners share the fixed costs, like renting the office, paying an administrative worker, and distribute among each other different unproductive tasks like preparing business proposals, promotional advertisement or participating to associative life. A brand new approach to professionalism is emerging among “Fifth State”.

Being in an organization provides self-employed professionals a sort of protection against risks, as self-employed professionals cannot rely on the ungenerous welfare state. Professionals in these organisations are not working as individuals in the market, and so can trust their organization during critical period of their life cycle: during maternity leave, sick leave or when injured. The organization helps because partners can take care of their clients and conclude projects, however long the person has to spend out of work.

Such findings put in question the traditional opposition that sociologists have always seen between organization and professionalism. In fact, they’re progressively changing our idea of professionalism into organizational professionalism (Evetts, 2011; Noordegraf, 2011). Quite often in sociology, organizations and professions have been considered to be at odds, but Italian freelancers teach us that they’re progressively merging as new collective collaborations form. A new social nebula is thus emerging; maybe they haven’t become a class as proletarians have done in the past but their response to their precarious role in society demands our attention as researchers and promoters of social policies.


  1. Evetts J (2011) ‘A New Professionalism? Challenges and Opportunities’. Current Sociology 59(4): 406–422.
  2. Noordegraf M (2011) ‘Risky Business: How Professionals and Professional Fields (Must) Deal with Organizational Issues’. Organization Studies 32(10): 1349-1371.
  3. Ranci C (2012) Partite IVA. Il Lavoro Autonomo Nella Crisi Italiana. Bologna: Il Mulino Editore.