We've Seen the Future, and You're Freelancing


Freelancing can be tons of fun. You create your own hours, accept the jobs you want, and take shit from no boss. Plus, many freelance and contract jobs come with the enormous perk of working from the comfort of your own home office stinky bed. I’m writing this post laying on my couch wearing an XXL t-shirt as a Comfort Dress; I’m using a Red Vine as a straw to sip Dr. Pepper, and my dog is laying behind me acting as a warming bolster. It’s the best.

According to a study conducted by Intuit in 2010, more than forty percent of the US workforce — so, sixty million people — will be contractors, temps, and the self-employed by 2020. That’s great for those of us who want to trade business casual for an all day pajama party, but is it good news for everybody?

Jeremy Neuner, founder of the coworking space NextSpace, writes at Quartz:

Following the recent economic downturn, the employment rate has recovered at a frustratingly slow pace, except in one area: temporary, contingent, and independent workers. Between 2009 and 2012, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of temporary employees rose by 29%. A survey of the 200 largest companies found that temporary workers represented, on average, 22% of their workforce, and that percentage is growing. Workers from all different industries (not just tech) are discovering that they’re able to be productive outside of the corporate office and without a long-term employer.

This is true, and that’s fantastic for many people. There are tons of benefits to not being tied down to a corporate job.

I’ve contracted and freelanced with companies from a place that rhymes with Shmoogle (not sure what I can and cannot say via my NDA!) to newspapers and magazines. In fat times, contract and freelance work can be a smörgåsbord of choice — you make your own hours, you’re usually compensated fairly decently, and there’s the delicious freedom to not being tied to a 9-to-5.

However, Neuner takes the benefits of freelance and contract work one step further:

The forces behind this sea-change are many: the rapid adoption of mobile technology, ubiquitous internet access, and a general sense of malaise powered by the vague yet nagging notion that we’re just not meant to work all day sitting in a cubicle. Add to that the waste of time, energy and brainpower that commuting engenders, and it becomes apparent that our definition of “workplace” will never be the same. It may seem like a tug of war between companies and workers, but in fact they share common goals: using technology and mobility to maximize productivity, innovation, and well-being.

But do workers and employees really have the same goals? I’m not so sure. Because while it can rule to be a “contingent worker” — it can also SUCK DONKEY BALLS.

First, freelance and contract work usually means no benefits — no matter how much you’re working. No healthcare, dental care, and no 401K. While your peers are saving for retirement, you can’t afford to replace all the teeth you lost due to your Red Vines and Dr. Pepper addiction.

There’s also no job security, and that’s fucking stressful. Hustling for freelance assignments can take years off your already shortened life (see above about health insurance). Further, if you’re a contract worker, knowing you can be easily discarded with no reflection on the company’s numbers (and no severance package!) really blows. Many companies in Silicon Valley hire multitudes of contract workers to do jobs that aren’t originally envisioned as temporary. Then, if they need to cut the fat somewhere, they’re able to lay those people off and not worry about explaining it to their boards or investors.

And although many contract workers are financially compensated a bit better than employees, their paychecks aren’t taxed. Come April 1st, you’re furiously adding up 1099s and shoveling out insane amounts of cash to Uncle Sam.

Less obviously, there’s a certain divide between staff members and freelance/contract workers at many companies. For contractors, it might mean you’re not included in certain meetings, not invited to staff parties, and excluded from important decisions. Even if you’re given the same responsibilities (or more!), are working the same hours (or more!), or are bringing equal value to the company — it just doesn’t matter. You’re not an employee, and you’re not treated as one in many of the ways that matter.

If you’re in office, that can have an affect on all sorts of things, from work morale to company loyalty. One tech company I worked at, fulltime employees were given white badges and contract workers had the dreaded red badge. We all had access to the same facilities and many of the same perks — free food, gym, bus ride to and from work — but the difference in badge color created a feeling of discontent amongst the red badges. I’m still not one hundred percent sure what the need for separate colors was, but I can tell you that there wasn’t a contract worker I met who wasn’t fully aware of our lower status.

If you don’t work in the same space as where you contract or freelance, there are other issues. Sure, it’s great to roll over and start working in your own filth, but it’s also pretty fucking lonely. When you’re not in the same office as the people you are working for, you miss out on the day-to-day friendships, collaborations, and idea exchanges that lead to better ideas, and general excitement about your shared endeavor.

Companies like NextSpace set up coworking spaces that mimic office life — but, like, cool office life with couches for lounging and hot entrepreneur coworkers. They’re interesting because you get to be around other people and their energy, and when you’ve been hibernating in your gross cave of body fluids and funk, that’s invaluable. However, it’s not quite the same as being in an office with people working toward the same goal or vision — or even in the same field. I’ve hung out in the San Francisco location, and maybe it’s because I’m not a regular, but I wasn’t able to find a buddy to brainstorm headlines or stories with. Also, you’re paying for your drop-in faux office space; at $20 for a visit, it can add up.

All things considered, I’d choose freelancing over a 9-to-5 corporate job almost every time, but the choice part is key. Piecing together a career is wonderful when it’s an opportunity, but it sucks if you’re forced into it. For many contract workers, it’s not their decision, it’s something they’re pushed into because a company doesn’t want to hire them for whatever reason. The company receives all of the benefits of a fulltime employee, without shelling out for many of the things that make being a fulltime employee worth it.

Not everyone wants to live in the freewheeling life of a freelancer, many people want (and need) benefits and security. Here’s hoping this worker revolution doesn’t leave them behind.

[Quartz] [Intuit]

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