One out of every three Americans in the labor market are currently employed as freelance workers. That’s a whopping 53 million adults, and they’re changing the way business is done all over the world. Quite a few freelance workers are strictly part-time, with daily W-2 employment at some company or other, and just a supplemental income from taking on projects and clients on the side.
Others have made the leap into full-time freelance work and are now supporting themselves and their families either by hopping from one job to the next or from some kind of casual 1099-style contract work. These people are in the vanguard of a revolution unlike any since the invention of the assembly line, and the new world that’s taking shape under their efforts simply makes a hash out of old-fashioned terms such as “employer,” “employee,” and even “job.”
Freelance work can be defined as work performed by an individual laborer who is not formally a member of the organization which cuts the checks. Obviously, such a broad definition casts a wide net and includes quite a few people, such as semi-independent HMO physicians and office temps, who would not describe themselves as freelancers. That’s fair enough, but the distinction between, say, a freelance commercial artist and an independent soy farmer is no longer all that clear. Indeed, such is the nature of a distributed freelance workforce that the soy farmer might actually be a commercial artist in his spare time.
Imagine all of the jobs people have traditionally done inside huge skyscrapers in expensive cities being done by semi-professional, part-time dirt farmers from Michigan, single moms from Ohio, or wanted fugitives living as expats overseas, and you’re starting to get an idea of where the economy seems to be headed in the 21st century.
Freelance workers are the independent freeholders of the new economy, and they occupy a position similar to burghers and craftsmen of earlier times. They bring whatever skills they picked up at school or on their free time to the jobs they do, and they do some version of almost every job in the economy.
At something like the bottom of the field, at least in terms of pay and negotiating power, are temps and freelance office help. It might seem odd to outsource data entry to a casual affiliate working from home, but the relatively new ability to connect to a company’s database from remote locations means that an entire workforce has sprung up which specializes in transcription, medical billing, forms processing, and even phone-based customer service without leaving the house.
If you’ve had the pleasure of placing an order with a catalog house or waiting for tech support to suggest power-cycling your MacBook in the last few years, there’s a reasonable chance that your call was routed to somebody’s cellphone, rather than the traditional horribly depressing call center full of broken souls.
Freelance employment goes beyond office help and virtual assistants (VAs are the people who respond to emails from customers that are too complicated for robofeedback, but not important enough to merit management’s full attention). Even some non-virtual work has spent the last several years shifting away from the employee model and toward fully independent franchisees.
Tremendously pretentious startups such as Uber and Lyft, for example, don’t really hire employees as drivers, nor do they own a fleet of cars. Instead of that headache, these companies just take requests and dispatch drivers who more or less meet their standards and have passed a criminal background check.
Another class of freelancer is essentially an entrepreneur. Freelance web developers, designers, and content creators are one-person small businesses whose product is the skill or service of the owner. The terms they work for are hugely variable, from one-off projects for a set fee to long-term relationships with a stable of clients, and they are increasingly the generators and curators of the dumb stuff you waste time with on the Internet.
The work these independent contractors do varies in quality and pay scale. Near the bottom of the barrel are blogging gigs for corporate clients who are generally willing to part with around $5 for a 500-word post with just the right key words and phrases to place highly on the search results pages. Since these articles are being written by humans for machines, elegant prose is rarely a consideration and pay suffers accordingly. Regardless of the byline, these pieces are typically written by anonymous freelancers who often live in countries that are so poor $10 a day finances a house.
At the top end are the direct pitches to major publications. These are probably written by the people whose names appear on the article, and they pay up to $1 a word. The catch is that you probably have to have some expertise before settling in to write a 3,500-word feature on table settings for a trade magazine.
At-home freelancers find their work in a variety of ways. Some work is of course generated by referrals and word of mouth, while sites such as Elance and oDesk post jobs that clients are just waiting to have done by one of the hundreds of thousands of workers who regularly browse the site. On seeing something interesting, the freelancer may apply, and if a response is forthcoming, negotiate pay and deliver the work. Still another source of income is from the so-called content mills. These mills’ business model is to pitch their huge workforce to companies as a crowdsourcing solution to a manpower crunch.
For freelancers, the upshot is a semi-reliable stream of writing, editing, and transcription work that pays somewhere between “feature article” and “recycled bottles.” Most mills require some level of competence, and users who aren’t up to snuff not only see their access revoked, but often go away without being paid at all.
The Advantages of Freelance Work
Every self-identified freelancer in the English-speaking world has heard these two remarks, usually from family: “Don’t get discouraged, you’ll find a real job someday,” and “I wish I could get paid for sitting around the house.” Both of these sentiments are built on the same premise—that freelance work isn’t “real” work, and that it’s therefore something to be either avoided or pursued, depending on the speaker’s inclination. Neither of these ideas is accurate, though most freelancers obviously feel the truth is closer to the second sentiment than the first.
According to SimplyHired.com, the average freelance salary is $68,000 a year. Freelance writers typically charge $25 an hour just for consultations and revision work, and some set their rates far higher. Freelancers are generally free to set their own hours, negotiate their own contracts, and fire bosses they don’t like working for. Working conditions are whatever the freelancer decides they will be. The author of this piece is a freelance writer and regularly produces amazingly well-crafted and amusing articles while wearing sweatpants and eating burritos (hence the sweatpants).
The Power of the Dark Side
The downside of freelance work is in its massive, seismic instability. While a busy freelancer expects to make around $200 for a day’s work, that day might be Thursday, and there might not be any more work to do until next Wednesday. Downtime is maddening to a freelance worker in a way that most others can’t comprehend. If the power goes out in your office, for instance, it’s expected in most cases that you’ll just sit there earning the same hourly wage until somebody—not you—finds the circuit box and changes a fuse.
Not only is this no skin off your nose, it’s basically a free break from the grind. If, on the other hand, the power goes out at a freelance writer’s house, it’s time to pack up the laptop and go to Starbucks for a few hours. Otherwise the project is late, the client is mad, the contract is at risk, and maybe the rent will be a week late this month.
Obviously, this gets better with time. New freelance workers usually take months or years to find their market niche and get good enough that there’s usually work available. During those rough early months, single projects are often separated by weeks of downtime, which suddenly becomes more work than can possibly be done at once. Eventually, independent workers learn to spread out the work and discipline their time effectively (so I’m told), but the work schedule really never settles down. Unless there’s a written contract in place—and sometimes even then—freelancers are never more than one sour email exchange away from having way too much free time on their hands.
The rise of the freelance economy is just beginning, and like any revolution its implications will only be known after the big shift. Some things are already clear, though. The first big change is the redefinition of what it means to be an employee or an entrepreneur. In a world where work is available to anyone who’s qualified, unemployment might lose some of its terrors as recently laid-off factory workers take up writing or freelance data entry.
Temporarily displaced workers might find their emergency stopgap method of making ends meet drifting toward a lifelong career as a free agent, living from one project to the next and shifting from development to design to content, and then back toward freelance market research with an app like Field Agent, which pays iPhone users to take pictures of store displays and leave reviews.
This flexibility is the modern equivalent of diversifying crops; if the potato harvest fails, you’ll at least have corn and beans to fall back on. Likewise, if Uber isn’t sending you enough work to pay the bills, at least you’ll still have the writing and virtual assistant work to tide you over.
Young people just starting to eke out their own lives might be less concerned with investing tens of thousands of dollars in getting an education at a prestigious school and focus more on acquiring skills at a state college or even a two-year vocational school. In a casual economy, one in which workers can be hired and fired on a timescale of hours or days, your skill and reputation count far more than seniority or whether you have compromising pictures of your boss.
Indeed, even the idea of a “boss” may decline, as the person signing the checks becomes more and more a client and less and less an authority figure. It could be that the people who do actual work have again gained the upper hand in that they—we—are now free to stroll away from unrewarding work at will. This will have the natural effect of sobering employers whose unreasonable demands might suddenly leave them without a workforce to bully.
However this transition shapes up a century from now, it’s a fair bet that anything 53 million Americans do for a living is here to stay. In a bizarre reversal of history, we might be witnessing the rollback of the Industrial Revolution model of mass labor and assembly line production. Nobody knows what that world would look like, but you or your kids might see it happen.