One third of the American workforce is made up of freelancers. 53 million individuals currently work for themselves, either full or part time. While some freelancers have full- or part-time “day jobs,” and use freelance work for a supplemental income, many entrepreneurs do freelance work on a full-time basis. Not since the Industrial Revolution has there been such an upheaval in the way a society’s workforce actually works. The old model of the employer-employee relationship has been undermined and may never regain its exclusivity.
A freelancer is an individual who is not a staff member of the organization that pays for his or her work. This definition intentionally allows for many types of different situations. Physicians, plumbers, and political consultants can all, theoretically, be freelancers, whether they consider themselves as such or not. Jobs that were previously done by employees who had physical desk space in a company’s office and received fixed paychecks have now been physically and technically distributed to all kinds of people across the globe, many having little affiliation with a given company.
Freelance workers are the key to the post-2008 recession economy. The phenomenon is best seen in the fact that the tasks previously done by in-house employees are now being outsourced to people working from home or a cafe in a distant city who bear no strict allegiance to the company they do the work for. Clearly, it is the digital and Internet age that allows for this new type of employment relationship, and the remote graphic design, medical billing, and customer service work that gets done far from a company’s offices. Whereas your call to a hotel reservations department once went to the hotel’s front desk itself, today that call is most likely answered by a freelancer, on his or her cellphone, far from any hotel you might be checking out.
Freelance employment is even more varied and pervasive than office help and telephone-based work. Many office and team-based types of work are now being done by fully-independent franchisees. An industry-disrupting company like Uber, the taxi and rideshare app, does not own a fleet of cars or have a pool of employee drivers; it uses freelance drivers who pass a company recruitment process.
As opposed to freelancers who do all of their work for one company on an independent basis, another type of freelancer is the entrepreneur. Today’s graphic designers, content writers and journalists are essentially one-man businesses, with the product being their unique skill set. They can be chosen by clients to do one-off projects or establish long-term, ongoing relationships, as a company’s go-to expert.
Work for independent contract has a hugely-variable pay scale, with the type of work and type of client being the major factors in determining freelance compensation. Whereas a content writer could be paid a few dollars per word for writing page-filling material, freelance journalists for top publications might get a premium per-word fee. SimplyHired.com lists today’s average freelance salary at around $68,000 a year. The benefits of freelancing are potentially manifold, but depend on individual circumstances: flexible hours, customized contracts, freedom of movement and selectivity of projects.
Freelance work is still derided by many people who dismiss it based on the perceived “comfortable” conditions it allows for. The truth is that freelance work is some of the most “serious” work out there and requires a lot of discipline and expertise.
It must be stated that the biggest downside of freelance work is its inherent instability. Work offers can be intermittent and random. Freelancers must learn to manage their money in such a way that they can survive the days, weeks or months when they get little to no new work. With time, as freelancers get to know their market, or establish ongoing relationships with one or several companies, workflow can become more steady and dependable.
Freelancers who work for a particular company usually do not enjoy the benefits that a regular employee receives in addition to his or her paycheck, the most significant being paid medical and social benefits. Freelancers must find their own medical insurance and lay aside money for their own retirement funds – both significant amounts of money. The harsh truth is that most freelancers are one e-mail away from unemployment without benefits or compensation packages.
We are now witnessing the rise of the freelance economy; there is a new global workforce growing and changing as we speak. Old definitions of employee and employer are no longer valid. Values like education, background, and geography all have changing importance in a market where a business owner is willing to pay a complete stranger in another city simply because he has proven skill in a particular field. Work is available to anyone who is qualified and connected.
Freelance work offers mobility and the power of self-definition to young people who grew up in a recession-embattled market freedom. Expensive university degrees are becoming less relevant in the face of specified skill sets. 15-year-old technology entrepreneurs are making millions when their homespun startups earn millions of dollars during IPOs. The new economy is a casual one, where skill and reputation count more than titles. The boss-employee relationship has evolved into a client-service-provider relationship, with a completely different dynamic and set of rules. The person paying the bills no longer has absolute power – a freelancer can walk away from a business relationship at almost any time.
It will be interesting to see how these seismic changes in the shape of the global workforce will look in 100 years, when the world – including India’s most remote village – is entirely connected through Internet and cellular technology. Only time will tell how far reaching these changes may prove to be.