This week NPR is running a series on the rise of the freelance workforce and the challenges of freelancers. You can read or listen to the first three segments here:
The pieces are the result of an NPR/Marist poll on freelance and contract work. Here are some thoughts I had after what I’ve seen reported so far:
What is a freelancer?
The poll sort of lumps together everyone who does contract work. The opera singer whose career necessitates freelance work; the HR consultant who made a career and lifestyle choice to go independent; the contract attorney who just hasn’t found the right full-time opportunity yet: they’re all included in the stories and counted the same as all freelancers in the poll. They may all look alike from an income tax and benefits standpoint, but there are big differences in motivations, goals, and very likely quality of life between those who work independently by choice and those who don’t. Which brings me to…
If you don’t make the choice, someone else might make it for you.
I had never heard of a contract attorney or a freelance emergency physician before I read these articles. Even industries with the prestige of law and medicine are going to the independent contractor model, and it isn’t too hard to see where this goes. Unless the attitude in Washington shifts in a big way, it won’t be long before job security, benefits, and a guaranteed salary are considered perks of the upper-upper class in a way that we view golden parachutes and stock options now. The great gains in worker protection that America made in the 20th century are being rolled back. The number of freelancers is going to continue to rise, but the percentage of those doing so by choice is likely going down.
Is there any safety net?
America as it is right now isn’t equipped to have a large independent workforce. The government has relied on corporations to provide safety nets like retirement income, health insurance, and disability pay. What happens when those go away? It doesn’t seem likely that the government will force companies to provide benefits for their contract workers – corporate lobbyists would kill any such measure in a heartbeat. But people without health care, and without retirement savings, will create a huge strain on the country’s resources if things keep going the way they are.
We’re not alone.
The people in the NPR pieces express a lot of anxiety about feeling like they are on their own. The American stigma against talking about money and finances keeps us from sharing knowledge. Having more of that shared knowledge can empower freelancers, from managing our finances and negotiating for pay to electing representatives who will speak up for us. There won’t be any steps toward a real safety net until we start speaking loud enough for Washington to listen.
I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the pieces and hearing what other freelancers have to say about them.