CBS was talking this evening about the growth of freelance work – projecting significant growth over the next couple of years. What was striking was how negative the reporting seemed. One of the two people interviewed was saying “the important thing is not to be idle” and the reporter presented freelancing as being just one rung above collecting unemployment – with employment clearly being preferable to freelance work, the moment the former is available. The entire piece presented freelance work as a regrettable sentence, a misfortune, and implied that somehow it means less money. What are these people smoking?
What we’re seeing is a lull in the parental relationship between employer and employee, and I think that’s a good thing. But it’s like listening to 30-year old men complain that they can’t live in Mom’s basement forever. The idea that employee status is superior, is the goal, is in fact the pinnacle of success in our culture is assumed, as an unaccountable absolute. Didn’t we just learn the opposite? Apparently not. This is my biggest gripe with those who keep saying, “it’ll turn around soon” – like Napoleon – “this’ll all be over by Spring”. Besides the fact that they’ve been saying that for the last two years, a tiptoe through the tulips faith-in-magic kind of optimism that has no basis in how economics really works, there’s no real learning – no real sense of cultural repentance – it’s as if there were nothing wrong with the system as it was, and this is something that just happened to us. It’s like listening to a culture of perpetual adolescents who ruined their credit, present it as if they just had some bad luck – the universe didn’t smile on them, and are clearly going to be shopping like mad as soon as they can be, applying for that credit card the moment they’ve got a chance.
There are three lessons of this economic event for adults. By adults, I mean those of us who aren’t looking for yet more dependency on the cultural parents that failed us so spectacularly. The first is that you obviously can’t dump trillions into a global policy of invasion and not break the empire’s bank. This is not primarily a political blog, so we’ll just say that and set it aside, but if we don’t believe things just magically ‘happen’ to us, we’ve got to say the cost of hubris is a factor. The second lesson is that it’s your fault, all this, and my fault, and we all share in this fault in some way. It’s silly to explain it as just a few rogue bankers, or the entire lending industry, or an irresponsible bunch of poor people (if you’re that type). You did this too, and I helped, so adulthood means not blaming everyone *except* ourselves for “getting us into this”. The third lesson we’ve mentioned before – all the BS that gets parroted from previous generations about job security, education being the ticket to vocational wellbeing, economic stability being the same as having a job, etc – it’s hoodoo – and we can’t go on believing in the face of empirical evidence.
What this economic shift offers us, actually, then, is a chance to grow up – a chance to get ourselves a little cleaner – an opportunity to live soberly. It’s interesting to watch even those who pride themselves in the rhetoric of self-reliance wail about “jobs”, as though that’s all that matters – someone coming to bail us out as individuals, all the while lamenting the “bail out” of the banks (which we all generally agree is a looting). Jobs. What’s wrong with going freelance? The CBS piece linked it with the notion of a lowered wage standard in most jobs. Well, that’s likely true, wage standards are likely going to be lowered for some time to come. Partly because we used an unprecedented portion of our economic potency to take over a number of pipeline routes and petroleum deposits in the Middle East. But are we really saying that the big disaster is we might end up working for ourselves? Or freelance?
And the notion that freelance work necessarily pays less, I find dubious. At first, some of it will. After all, there’s the silly notion in some corporate circles that freelancers are less valuable, more transient, and somehow ‘deserve’ less than employees. Sensibly, the opposite is true. We pay our own benefits, our own taxes, our own expenses, and there’s cost involved just being freelance. On top of that, you survive by being superior. Someone wants to pay me employee’s wages, and the discussion is over – it’s got to be a lot more. Desperation is going to make some people foolish in what they’ll accept, and they’ll price sell. OK, for a while. But it won’t last. A lot of us are going to get strong, while they just get robbed.
First, think about it – shouldn’t you, if you were a freelancer, be entitled to what they’d pay a staffing agency for a temp? I don’t mean what they’d pay the temp – I mean what they’d pay the agency itself. You incur the same costs, so damned straight that’s what you should be paid. Probably more. The staffing agency won’t pay for your doctor bills – you’ve got insurance costs to cover.
Second, the shoe is going to shift feet. As the number of freelancers doubles, we’re going to find new ways to organize, connect, and consolidate resources. The Freelancers Union is seeing a nice influx about now. The growth of social media indicates that a coming trend is for any set of disconnected people fending and fighting for themselves to, as they grow, utilize the attitudes and techniques of social media, which in turn will further that growth, and in turn further consolidate their ability to support one another, act in concert – in mental, emotional, and physical unison. In other words, what’s coming is an initial feeling of desperation followed by a transferrance of clout – a shift of power – from the employer to the contractor and to the freelancer.
What’s beautiful, from a freelancer’s perspective, is that they don’t see it yet. Opportunity is glowing in the dark, and they don’t see it. And this will help further the future of freelancing. The other thing that’s going to happen is an intellectual and emotional campaign to retain employer-like control in the context of contractor and freelance relationships. Be ready for it. Yes, it’s already there. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But not to worry. The social media trends would seem to indicate an incredible likelihood of taking this out of their hands.
So, I’m not ready to lament about being out on my own, or wax nostalgic about mom’s sofa. I’m not sitting around and mourning the growth of freelancing and looking at it as a social problem. For one thing, some of us are thinking about how to make it a source of prosperity. For another, the freelancing trend offers genuine hope for a more mature, more self-aware, more ethical set of relationships – a more equitable exchange of value between service providers and service buyers.
Instead of standing out there shouting “jobs, jobs” with the obfuscators, the anti-benefits crowds, or the people who are just going along, why not ask for reduced taxes on the self-employed, and opportunities for access to the same kinds of benefits (especially group health care) that employees have long relied upon? The Freelancers Union, Free Agent Source, and congressional legislation allowing the self-employed to act as groups for purchasing healthcare all seem like positive directions for this.
I’ve only one thing to say to the CBS group about their report: I hope to remain *unemployed*. I’ve no problem with employment per se, but it’s not the holy grail – doing what you love for a fair exchange – that’s the target. I like being freelance, or self-employed, or an entrepreneur. I have no desire to trade freedom and prosperity for the illusion of security – if employment is an end in itself, rather than meaningful work, great pay, good benefits, and diversified sources of income, then why? Just because Mom has a nice couch? Relying on a single, canned income source wasn’t a good bargain at the start of this thing (just look what happened). It’s not a good bargain dealing with the fallout. You CBS guys should look on the bright side, or at least acknowledge that there is one, even if the cost was, in the estimation of many of us, unacceptable.