The term ‘freelancer’ describes an individual who is generally self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a specific employer long-term. Freelancers are sometimes represented by a company or an agency that resells their labor to clients, while others work independently or use professional associations or websites to get work.
When it was cool to be a freelancer
Today, it can feel that, as a freelancer, you are somehow a second class citizen when compared to the majority of people who enjoy the promissory job security and benefits rewards of a full-time contract with an employer. Not that being full-time these days guarantees a job for life.
It’s thought the term originates from a period of White Knights, Dragons, and Damsels. In Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a lord refers to his paid army of ‘free lances’; a medieval mercenary who’d fight for any cause that paid the most (sound familiar?).
“I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”
Sir Walter Scott – ‘Ivanhoe’
The word soon developed a broader meaning to describe someone working on their own terms, with no long-term commitment to an employer.
It’s a good time to be a freelancer
I’ve been jumping in and out of self-employment since I left education. It’s not as terrible as people sometimes think to be a freelancer in our digital era if you have some skill, knowledge or experience that organizations are prepared to pay for. Here are some of the benefits:
Being your own boss
It may be an overused (and over-assumed) presumption, that working for yourself means you can do business on your own terms. Imagine! Holidays when you like (and not having to pay exorbitant fees to holiday when the kids are on school breaks). Genuinely, for some people, it can really be a perk of freelancing. For those wanting to grow up baby, jump into part-time education to grow their soul, or have a need to support family members as a carer, freelancing can be a perfect fit. That said, for other self-employed people, gaining enough income from multiple employments isn’t that straight-forward and sometimes individuals can find themselves working extraordinary hours to pay the bills. This isn’t perhaps the ‘promise’ of self-employment that people expect. If you are self-employed, then every employer is basically a ‘customer’ under a different name.
Sharpening your skills/doing what you’re good at
One of the great benefits of being a freelancer is that – if you’re lucky – you get to do THE JOB you enjoy doing. Sometimes, full-time job roles can include a long list of… ‘Other things your manager might require you to perform in order to fulfill the obligations of the department.’ It can be tiresome for individuals to find they have to spend large proportions of their week doing silly admin tasks or running around for others just because there are gaps in a department’s resourcing approach, or that provided technology falls short.
Employers (and customers) want predictability in service delivery, and the great thing about being a freelancer is that – if you’re lucky – you get to develop an impressive CV of performing the same job really well. This helps to raise your value in the job market.
Job satisfaction that comes through variety of employments
It’s hard for many of us to imagine working for the same employer doing the same job day-in-day-out for an entire career spanning 60 or 70 years! Working as a freelancer (again, if you’re lucky), you get to pick the jobs you want to do, the people you want to work for, etc. This can be extremely rewarding if you have the opportunity to experience different employers, a variety of work cultures, and a blend of industries. Every new project becomes a fresh new learning experience. You’re always learning. If you’re a life-long-learner type, it can be just the sort of thing you’ll enjoy.
Maintaining your values and sense of morality
I know of individuals that work for companies and feel awkward every day because of their moral or social stance on certain issues. Perhaps, the company you work for isn’t looking after customers as you’d expect them to, or they’re flagrantly ignoring issues that you care about. Working as a freelancer means you can (in principle anyway) walk away should the balance between pay and your personal sense of right and wrong becomes unacceptable.
The downside you might be able to live with
There’s no denying that there are several potential downsides to freelancing. It’s not for everyone. I would say, you definitely need one or two very robust ‘repeat customers’ and possess some skill, experience or know-how that’s in demand if you want to make it work. Many potential ‘buyers’ of your time will be looking for something they can’t get from employing someone full-time. There is an unwritten expectation that you can jump into a role and start delivering results FAST.
After COVID-19, few would argue that it’s important to have job security these days, and you could argue that working for a large employer (with a fat balance sheet), on a full-time contract, can be somewhat reassuring. That said, we’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest that a full-time contract is no guarantee of a job for life anymore.
As everyone says, ‘The customer is always right.’ Sometimes, the expectations of contracting organizations can be completely unreasonable. Operating multiple employments, or serving multiple customers can leave the freelancer squashed in the middle – and the things that suffer are family-life, free-time and mental health.
A weak safety net
When things go wrong for freelancers, the risk of loss of income can be catastrophic on mental health – and there are few Worker Protection laws that apply to self-employed people. Society has yet to fully come to terms with the impacts and consequences of a gig economy; and what that means in terms of social care systems, saving for retirement, and general mental health provisioning.
Does it come down to personality and activation energy?
Being a freelancer isn’t for everyone. I know some people, given a choice to lay in bed for an extra couple of hours, would definitely choose that option. While it’s different for everyone, my personal experience of being a freelancer is that you need to be someone who can energize themselves and work under your own steam.
You need to be able to work alone without a supervisor, or someone telling you what to do every five minutes. Your customers are probably paying more for your skills because they presume you are ‘managing yourself’ in addition to performing an activity. Without that ‘activation energy’ to get out of bed in the morning, deadlines can descend on you from a dizzy height, and before you know it, you’re fighting a wave of work that you can’t finish.
You’re a Free-lancer, BE PROUD!
If you’re a freelancer, it means you’re someone who’s achieved a level of greatness that makes you valuable to others. You’re someone people trust to get a job done – even though they can’t tie you down to a full-time contract. You have activation energy and you’re a self-starter; someone who can walk away if the moral case for doing something becomes unjust. Sometimes, the money JUST ISN’T WORTH IT.
We were never meant to work full-time
I would argue that being a freelancer is a great existence if you can make it work. Now that people have a tendency to live longer, the notion of working for the same employer all the way through your life might feel a bit of a sentence if you’re just entering into the world of work.
Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, professors at the London Business School wrote a book titled, The 100-year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, in 2018. The book suggests that, as many of us are now living longer, many people will be routinely working for 60 or 70 years!
Ultimately, there are inherent tensions in the employer-worker relationship that make it doomed to fail, for anyone thinking that full-time employment is the Holy Grail (she says, keeping to the Knights of Old theme!). That’s because:
- People want personalisation; corporations want conformity
- People want flexibility, corporations want standardization
Freelancers are here to stay because in an age of individuality and personalisation, it’s working and work-life – ON YOUR TERMS.
About the Author
Erica Tomlin is a program manager for Workspend Inc., specializing in delivering exceptional customer experience for our customers. Passionate about helping people to gain a sense of reward from their work-lives. Erica regularly posts articles on subjects of Gig Working, Women in IT, Workforce Management and Talent Acquisition. Follow her on LinkedIn.