Making ends meet: when freelancing and the gig economy collide

I’ll start with a line in the sand: Freelancers are self-employed and they take what they call gigs, but freelancing is not the so-called “gig economy” that has captured the attention of the media (and a respectable chunk of the economy) as of late. I don’t know if anyone has agreed on a formal distinction between what differentiates freelancing from gigging, but to me it’s fairly simple:

Freelancers are hired for jobs that only a person of their particular skills and training could do.

Gig economy workers (giggers?) are hired for jobs that require nothing but a live human to perform them.

The line between the two may not always be so clear, but it’s a good place to start discussing how the media and the general public view and treat both types of workers and why it actually matters to the people who do these jobs.

What brings me to this topic this is a recent piece from public radio’s Marketplace. Rather than highlighting the distinction between freelancing and gig work and how the two can and do interact, the piece frustratingly blurs the difference between the two types of work, devaluing the real skilled work that freelancers do. I love Marketplace and listen all the time, which makes it all the more frustrating to hear them bite hard on the cliche that gig and freelance work are synonymous.

The piece talks about a freelance audio engineer from New York named David who also drives for Uber to make ends meet. David’s two jobs feed off of one another: the inconsistency of the audio work necessitates Uber, but the flexibility of Uber allows him to keep pursuing audio. In a different era he may have had to give up his career as an audio engineer to find a full-time job, or else find something like a restaurant job which has its own set of regular hours. I’m no great fan of Uber and its Gilded Age-era attitude toward treating its employees (er, “contractors”), but this case seems like one of the better ways someone could use the gig economy to support themselves while they build up the skills and experience to become established in their “real” career. But the piece focuses instead on the anxiety caused by inconsistency of his work, which forces him to go so far as…dabbling in stocks! (oh David, I’ve been there before. If you’re already anxious from freelancing, trying to make money in the stock market is not going to improve things.)

I don’t want to diminish a situation that at least one person clearly finds stressful. But when our culture starts treating all independent work, skilled or not, as something that hinders from rather an enables a person to lead a life doing what is meaningful to them, it erodes the value of the skilled work that is the ultimate goal of the true freelancer, making it even harder to achieve the experience of financial stability. If the dominant perception of freelancers is of semi-employed people muddling along until a full-time job comes along, would you expect the people who hire them to treat them (and pay them) like the skilled professionals they are?

We live in a unique moment. Gig work makes it easier than ever for emerging freelancers to support themselves without having to squeeze everything in around a 9-to-5 job. But the moment is assuredly temporary. An alternate definition of work in the gig economy might be a job that isn’t obsolete yet; in a world of self-driving cars Uber drivers certainly won’t exist. Furthermore, the exploding supply of workers in the remaining services that can’t be automated (TaskRabbiters, Airbnb hosts, and Rover dogsitters, to name a few) will someday outstrip the demand for them, effectively ending the gig economy as anything but a way for the otherwise-fully-employed to earn some extra beer money.

What should freelancers do? Above all, make the case that you are a skilled professional. Push back against the lazy assumption that you’re doing something that any old person can do. And when you hear someone lump your career in with the gig economy, (politely) push back and write an email, call them out on Twitter, or even give them the dreaded “Well, actually…”. If people want professional work, they should expect to pay for a professional.

Also, for aspiring freelancers, take advantage of the opportunity you have today to use the gig economy for its flexibility. Yes, there will be uncertainty and anxiety, but it’s nothing like the all-or-nothing world of not so long ago when you had to choose between a day job and your passion. You can make this moment work for you by being creative, flexible, and driven – all the qualities that made you want to live the freelance lifestyle to begin with.

Almost as an afterthought, the Marketplace piece ends with the line, “Our survey finds that gig workers highly value setting their own schedule and being their own boss.” Independence and uncertainty, freedom and anxiety. The two sides to being a freelancer have always gone hand in hand; if one exists then by definition the other will be there too. It’s up to freelancers to find balance between the two; it’s up to the rest of the world to stop overweighting the negative aspect without acknowledging the positive.