Freelance Nation

IT’S BEEN CALLED the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.

via The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time – Sara Horowitz – Business – The Atlantic.

18 thoughts on “Freelance Nation”

  1. Hear, hear. Making money on your own breeds a whole new kind of creativity from that which you get working full-time. For me, I am most creative when I have a few requirements to fulfill– and getting to set my own requirements means everything. Being free has meant learning things I never would have even considered before, within the confines of my “job description”.

  2. Amen.

    I have spent the bulk of the last ten years as a sole-proprietor. I had a job for two years running marketing for a mortgage company. What I learned was this, “It’s not worth the money.”

    Every time someone brilliant I know loses their job I tell them, “Fuck it. Jobs are for suckers. You have a marketable skill. Market it.”

    Most don’t listen. They’re afraid. Fear is for suckers too.

  3. Just before the dot com crash I gave a talk at GEEK PRIDE, an open source conference and festival curated by Sooz Kaup. I asked how many people in the audience worked at Razorfish. Many hands went up.

    “If you’re good enough to work at Razorfish,” I said, “you’re good enough to work for yourself.”

    Freelancing (or running a small studio or startup) is not for everybody. Some people who are very creative prefer to have someone else handle the business side of things (or the client hand-holding side of things, or both). But as the old economy crumbles before us, more and more of us will have to create our own jobs—so why not test the waters?

  4. Working solo can be exhilarating and life-changing. It can also be isolating and exhausting. After seven years as a (mostly) solo designer, for me the well has been tapped. I’m not burned out so much as empty—empty of energy, empty of ideas. With the speed of change in the web design-development field it’s almost overwhelming to keep up. The last year has been particularly shattering—which is a good thing for the industry, but very, very hard on solo workers.

    I’ve lately decided to take a break from client work for 6 months and explore some other creative avenues. Then I seriously doubt I’ll go back to solo work—if I stay in web design I’ll look for a small studio or co-working opportunity.

    I think it’s good to recognize what you as a solo freelancer might lack, and what you can do to find collaborative and supportive opportunities.

  5. Jeffrey, I’m curious what you thought about the second half of this article. I read it a couple weeks ago and have had a post response sitting in my drafts folder that I’ve deemed too “ranty” but I’m still having trouble getting over her perspective.

    In her three points she implies that 1) there’s a problem with this new type of workforce that the government needs to fix 2) that I, as a sole-proprieter am forced (her word, not mine) to be responsible for myself (retirement, insurance, job security, etc.) and 3) that the New Deal economy of factory workers is the baseline norm, when, in fact, I think it’s a blip in history and now we’re returning to a time where we can all be a bit more individually responsible for our careers if we chose too.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there are things that both government and industry can do to help improve my life as a solo worker, but so many of the things she lists as problems are part of what I consider to be the benefits of (and often reasoning behind) my choice to work for myself.

  6. There is certainly something enjoyable about doing work you love on your own terms with clients of your own choosing. But being a (now recovering) freelancer for nearly a decade myself I can tell you that it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Just a quick perusal of Clients from Hell will confirm this. But just like any job it has peaks and valleys and after a while you just learn to roll along.

    Freelancing does have a dark side and I can attest to the fact that it can cause strain on personal relationships. It’s a tough life and given our current economic situation it can be extremely hard to make ends meet. I wouldn’t redo anything I’ve done in the past, but I certainly would have done it much differently.

    I’m sure there will be days where I miss the freedom of freelancing, but having a job where I can go to work and not worrying about running a business or doing the bookkeeping is a relief. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll be itching for my old freelancing days again. That grass is always greener, right?

  7. What “freelancing” means for the rest of the world for people less talented and less priviliged:

    – being thrown out of a job with decent social security only to be hired again as a “freelancer” for a fraction of the money and without any social security whatsoever

    – companies sneaking out of any responsibilities for their workers from which they make their money, raising company profits and lowering household incomes.

    – people forced into two or three full-time “freelancing” jobs only to make ends meet.

    – separating a workforce into independent freelancers robs them of any means of organising for better working-conditions, wages, social security. Believe it or not, there was a time when “Union” was not equal “Communism”

    But oh, no, that doesn’t concern me, our industry is different, but:

    – we are fragmented and not organised, we can easily be outplayed (“I know a guy who does your job for half the price…”)

    – we are used as the model for shaping the rest of the working society: May work for our industry (highly skilled, well educated, young), probably does not work for the rest (lower education, lack of special skills, ageing)

    – we are not a nation. We are just a tiny fragment of a gigantic workforce that is told to stop whining when their jobs are ruined: Look at this web-designer there, he is doing fine.

    Don’t get me wrong here: I like my job and I can make a decent living out of it, but let’s not forget that we have a lopsided view on the world from our little industry. It is articles like this, that help to shape the rest of the world and make every critic look like a nay-sayer who is against freedom…

  8. This discussion is getting great. Please keep it coming. I am learning a lot from your perspectives. I will respond to some direct questions but I want to wait a bit and read more about what more of you think. Thank you!

  9. A year ago, I wrote an article about how the business employees are slowly switching into freelancing as the agencies themselves also demand more remote contracted individuals / on Why Freelance?.

    It’s been advantage for me, being a full time freelancer for 6 years now and totally enjoying. It’s more like having your business though; it has responsibilities, schedulings, money management and such. It takes time shifting if you’re new.

    Just like @mugwump said, we’re are not a nation. Not yet, but I guess we’re getting there.

  10. This discussion is fascinating. There is, however, an iteration of freelancing that I’ve been an advocate of for many years: Co-ops. It has always seemed to me that a co-operative mimics almost exactly the ad-hoc teams we form for almost every project we participate in. Colleagues who collaborated on a project, then became friends, and then co-workers. So permanent teams are formed. They are often regular companies, but act like a co-op anyway. In a co-operative, members retain their freedom to do great work with friends, have the organisation to compete with agencies, but also have a support and safety network. In my view, it’s the best of both worlds for the independently-inclined.

    I wrote some brief incidental thoughts on co-ops when introducing Analog to the world. Another co-op, Grow, that I founded in a very ad-hoc way a decade ago is still going with different members today.

    Your post Jeffrey, and the insightful comments, has prompted me to shift a piece about the international co-operative working model up my todo list. The wait may still be considerable. In the meantime, if anyone is attending Brooklyn Beta next week, feel free to grab me if you want to know more.

  11. The Full-time job and the Freelance job have their own pros/cons…

    The difference is that at Full-time job you are obligated to spend “this much” time and you are free of social security issues, health insurance, taxation and finding clients, but the employer owns you in this 8-12 hours of your life-per-day.

    The Freelance job in other hand imposes the pain of finding clients and acting amateur-MBA (and similar marketing/sales skills), also you pay your taxes, health insurance and the rest of the package, but you own your time. You are Free and You can Decide when to start the work on the given project.

    In the most of the day time I prefer to be with my family-children-wife-dog instead in steamy workplace with colleges that try to look smarter then you in every step of the way…

    Great topic Jeffrey ~ respect…

  12. It’s interesting to hear some other perspectives here as well. I’m realizing that a big part of my reaction to her article was that it implied I wasn’t informed or didn’t make a choice when I went out on my own. I very much did both (and continue to make those choices) so it seemed like a slight to have someone come along and suggest that I might be at a disadvantage and not even realize it.

    That said, my perspective didn’t include the experience of other, as mugwump highlights in the first half of his comment, that had companies push them into margins as contractors because of the financial benefits to the company. That’s the kind of thing we need to address. Going out on your own as a sole-proprieter, while a lot of work, should always be something that you chose to do, not something that you’re forced to do.

    As for things like co-ops, I’m a huge fan. I’m not formally a member of one, but I have several friends and business partners that I’m constantly joining forces with to better serve our clients. These are great ways to be more organized without having to formally lose our independence.

  13. Thanks for pointing me to The Atlantic article Jeffrey. Good stuff!

    Over half a lifetime, my own long path took me from the paid-slavery of the conventional societal worker anthill to the immensely supportive, resource-rich and emotionally sustaining experience of an intentional community. Here roughly 360 men, women and children lived and worked together, doing what we loved doing.

    The resource power of a community is immense. Within a few years we owned the 30 or so acres of land we lived on, built the buildings for various cottage industries, a huge kitchen-dining room, a commercial laundry, bedroom accommodation for all of us, a fully equipped surgery for our community doctors and many other facilities that among others housed a commercial printing press, a design department etc — which eventually led to my becoming a web and graphic designer and getting to know you through various incarnations of your websites and your audio and video podcasts with Dan Benjamin.

    When we started our community in the early 70’s, we encountered considerable hostility from wider society and government. Now the ivory towers and oligarchies are in full meltdown all over the planet, the phoney ever-upwards models of commerce are bankrupt and I say none too soon!

    I’m gladdened that more and more people are rediscovering community and co-operatives again, where people KNOW each other and support each other, exploring new models of living, sharing and doing what we love.

  14. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to diversify. You may have your standard geek occupation and another one totally out of the box. I can give you my example. I’m a web developer. Have been for the past 17 years. But I also love nature. So I give courses and workshops regarding bush craft, living in the woods and also about growing vegetables inside apartments and at the balcony. Nature in small urban spaces.

  15. I’m a bit behind in my comments, but I would add that freelancing, just as agency or corporate work, is what you make it.

    I worked for 4 years at an agency, and loved it. I left because I’m ambitious, and thought I could make more money on my own, and enjoy working when, where, and how I liked.

    I’ve had unbelievable success, not just financially, but the overall experience. I don’t attribute it to good luck, but rather to conscious decisions I made to protect myself, and enjoy work. Here’s a few reasons I disagree with most of the negative points given in the comments.

    Clients from Hell: I’ve never had one. Ever. The key? I say no to WAY more projects than I say yes to. I have a set of red flags, if any are raised, I drop the project immediately. Sometimes I’ve taken a loss, but I’ve never let myself go days or weeks into a deteriorating relationship. Saying no is a huge key (as Whitney Hess would attest!)

    Burn out: I’ve been going for about 2 years, so I may not have hit quite what you would after 7. Over that time, I have felt isolated, and had creative slumps, but whenever that happens I call up a fellow freelancer, and work side by side with them for a few days. Foster relationships with local people like you, so you can draw on their strengths, share yours, and prevent burnout.

    Personal life: This is a choice. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. I choose to work in a rigid schedule (rarely taking exceptions). I choose to take vacations, date my wife, and spend time with my wonderful hedgehog. If you can’t make the money you need or want in a 6 hour work day.. your clients are not your problem.

    I’ve found a host of solid reasons that I love freelancing. I’ve worked with diverse clients from around the world, and paid an enormous amount more to do it than I was earning at an agency.

    I know I wont freelance forever, I like working with a close-knit group of people. I’ll pick it up again someday. But to sum up a long and verbose comment: Your work is what you make of it.

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