Freelancers, Who’s Got Your Back?

Politics and Culture | Feb 08, 2015

It is not really news anymore that more people are working independently, unattached to a single employer. We know this is beyond a temporary blip in the job market when we see all of the big consulting companies and business journals writing about it, and the major business schools hosting round tables on the topic. For the most part, these forums speak enthusiastically about the technologies that make it easier to work and collaborate remotely, the freedom freelancing gives to “restless” millennials to be their own bosses, and the financial benefits that a more flexible workforce brings to companies.

If you’re a freelancer you probably don’t need anyone to tell you that the world of work is changing. Maybe you know more people who are working for themselves, or maybe you’re discovering more online tools that can help you find work, share information, handle your bookkeeping and more. For those of you who chose to transition into freelancing from full-time employment, there was probably an initial headiness when taking the plunge—a combination of excitement, fear, and hopefulness that this choice would allow you to carve out a rewarding career while making a decent living.

If you embarked on this journey with a good network, solid skills, and reasonable expectations about what you needed to earn in order to have a balanced life, you probably got off to a pretty good start. It’s likely though, that many of the tougher realities of running your own business started to sink in when you had to make some of the early decisions. Incorporate or not? What to charge clients? What about taxes? How to plan a vacation? If you were lucky, you may have had buddies who could help or trusted experts you could turn to for answers. Or maybe you muddled through this first stage, having anticipated a few bumps in the road before you really got going.

Often the reality of flying solo comes as a bit of a shock. In an informal survey Living Freelance conducted among Canadian freelancers, many of the participants told us that they had rarely considered the value of the financial, social, and professional supports that come with working in a company setting. We learned that it was often quite stressful in the first few weeks of freelance work, when the participants realized that lacking these supports, they were truly on their own. Many of the freelancers missed the camaraderie, the wise colleagues, the steady pay cheques, and the health care benefits that allowed them not to have to think too hard about the cost of going to the dentist. Even the seasoned independents told us that while they hadn’t gone back to a full-time work, and likely never would, it wasn’t always easy keeping their businesses of one going. Continuously marketing themselves to keep the work opportunities flowing, finding the time and money to make the necessary skills upgrades, and the inevitable social isolation that comes with working alone, were all identified as real challenges that many freelancers are not particularly well prepared to handle.

There are organizations out there that aim to help. Some of the traditional unions have set up freelancers’ branches. The Canadian Freelance Union and The Canadian Media Guild‘s freelance branch for media workers, The Society of Graphic Designers and The Writers Guild are just a few examples of this. There is also the inestimable Freelancers Union in the United States. Established more than fifteen years ago, this organization provides benefits, advocacy, and some excellent information and support for their 245,000 members. Similar organizations exist in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Australia. Some are calling this global expansion of freelancer organizations a new movement—all of these entities are talking about the fact that traditional structures are not keeping pace with the changing ways people are working today. For example, Joel Dullroy, one of the founders of the Freelance Movement in Germany, points out that the post-war era support systems which were oriented around the employer-employee relationship have become increasingly ineffective in a world of outsourcing and fewer full-time jobs.

This new work model poses more questions than answers. If we are in the midst of a transition which some describe as profound as the industrial revolution, what are the structures and supports needed to not only get by, but to be successful? Are our informal networks enough? Does the future lie in these new movements aimed at banding people together for mutual assistance? What do freelancers really need to feel economically and socially secure and what is the best way to accomplish this? These are the kinds of questions that Living Freelance hopes to explore (with your help) in the weeks and months ahead.

— Living Freelance team

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