The Freelance Flood

By John Hollon

Mar. 27, 2009

Are we finally seeing the foundation of Freelance Nation?

    I ask the question because one of the distinguishing characteristics of this current economic downturn/recession/depression is that it is pushing a lot of workers out of regular jobs and into the ranks of the self-employed, whether they like it or not.

    A recent story in The Miami Herald explored this trend and indicated that it was a “real option” for many workers, although as the story also notes, this is less of a voluntary choice and more of the reality that many workers are finding thrust upon them when they suddenly find themselves out of a job and all else fails.

    “As times get tougher,” the Herald story says, “many are turning to freelancing and contract work, transforming a trend that was once a lifestyle choice into a matter of economic survival. Frustrated trying to find full-time work, more people are piecing together a living doing projects, consultancies and part-time gigs from home for an outside employer.”

    In other words, a lot of workers are being forced into the self-employed entrepreneurial lifestyle out of necessity and/or desperation.

    Not everyone is cut out for the freelance life. Freelancing has long been an option for those who wanted to work on their own schedules, doing what suited them. But beyond that, freelancing has always been a refuge for people who, for one reason or another, found they just didn’t fit neatly into a regular work environment.

    I’ve known people who were difficult and impossible to manage in a traditional work setting who suddenly became mellow, professional and productive after they went the freelance route. There is one guy who freelances a little forWorkforce Management who used to work with me as a staffer at a daily newspaper. In that environment, he was unfocused and unproductive. And while I don’t know how he works at home, when he writes for me now, he hits his deadline most of the time and is a pleasure to work with. That’s not something I could have said when we worked together in a traditional workplace structure.

    Freelancing is a great option for some, but hard to swallow if you’re forced into it because you find yourself out of work with no other good option for making a living. And those who take up freelancing by necessity know all too well that without an employer, no one is there to pay for health benefits, sick days, coffee or any number of things we all take for granted when we have a regular job.

    There’s also the question of how you distinguish yourself as a freelancer when there are suddenly so many other freelancers to compete with. I’ve been bombarded this year by queries from people I have never, ever heard from before who are now trolling for any kind of temporary gig or freelance assignment that might be available. Just the sheer volume of freelancers out on the market makes it really difficult for anyone to stand out.

    More important, this flood of people into the freelance world feels to me like a fundamental change, a shift for both workers and businesses into a very different kind of employer-employee relationship. “The big question,” the Herald story asked, “is whether this trend is long term or whether freelancing will fade as the economy strengthens and full-time jobs become available.”

    I don’t think there’s a good answer for that, but I do think that many businesses will find that the flexibility of a freelance workforce— primarily, the ability to assign work as the need arises on a project basis—will have a lot of appeal even after the current economic downturn has run its course.

    There’s another factor that makes the prospect of Freelance Nation so appealing for so many: If people can be successful working for themselves without the BS they get in a traditional job, they’ll be more than happy to kiss employee life goodbye.

Workforce Management, March 16, 2009, p. 34Subscribe Now!

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