No substitute for freedom
I recently read a post on Judy and Dagmar Jenner’s blog entitled “Keeping the Free in Freelance“. It was a welcome reminder, especially to those of us who are fond of complaining and bemoaning our lot, that, as freelances, we are free to choose who we work with and to negotiate terms that suit us. But it also made me think more widely about what it means to be a freelance and how much I love that aspect of my job.
I worked in journalism, as an employee, for 15 years, so I know exactly what it means to have a regular wage, a company pension scheme and career opportunities. And I can honestly say that, despite those undeniably positive aspects, I can’t ever imagine myself going back to any kind of “normal” job again. One reason, as you might expect, is the freedom of having no boss but myself. I know some advice websites, in their attempts not to mislead young would-be freelances into thinking that you can earn a living doing exactly what you like, play this advantage down, but really it’s a huge benefit. I speak as someone who has had all kinds of boss, from the excellent to the worse than appalling, and I can categorically state that the freedom to make my own decisions, be answerable to no-one but myself and not to have to do ridiculous and pointless things I don’t believe in is, on its own, worth giving up the apparent security a steady job can provide.
I say “apparent security” because I also know from experience that job security is a comfortable and comforting illusion. In the mid-1990s I was working for a newspaper that suddenly changed editors. After having a boss I could talk to and reason with when I disagreed with him, I was suddenly working for a petty dictator who seemed to make decisions depending on what he had for breakfast that morning. Within a year I’d been sacked as part of a “restructuring”. True, I was paid some redundancy money, but I learned the hard way that your job is only as safe as your boss, or in recent years the economic situation, decides it is.
And that leads me to another advantage of freelancing. When things are tough, as we have seen in recent years, jobs are lost and wages get cut, and in these post-trade union times there seems to be very little employees can do about it. But while freelancers are also subject to the same economic forces as everyone else, and I know some who have tamely accepted rate reductions and the loss of work, we don’t have to be so passive. We can look for other customers, perhaps in areas of the world where economies are still on the up. We can also diversify what we do, looking at related areas that might pay better or be useful additions to our main line of work. This flexibility is another key advantage for the freelance over the employee, who is only able to swap one boss and set of conditions for another.
Flexibility extends to working hours too, of course. Freelances can earn extra money simply by looking for and taking on more work. An employee can only do that if overtime is available, and these days many are forced to work overtime for no extra reward. It makes life easier for parents too. When my son was a baby, I was able to look after him in the mornings while my wife worked, but my customers hardly noticed, as I had my computer on hand to answer e-mails. All I had to do was to plan my work schedule for the afternoons when my wife returned. Now I go swimming for an hour three mornings a week, once again hardly affecting my customers. The week before last I had a great deal of work and I did extra hours to be able to cope with it. In a couple of weeks’ time I’m going away for a weekend and I’ll be taking an extra day off. No one minds. Thanks to my smartphone, my customers may not even realise I’m away. All these things have been and are real benefits to my quality of life. All of them would have been difficult or impossible in a “real” job.
And there’s more, although this part of my argument may be a little more controversial. One of the things I enjoy about not being employed by a company is the freedom from what I term “trendy corporate nonsense”. These are the buzzwords and empty concepts bandied around at business school which end up being passed down to hapless employees who have to pretend to believe in them and look as if they’re making them work. Once again, I speak from experience. In the early nineties I was working for a newspaper (not the same one as I mentioned before) which decided to introduce something called Total Quality. Aside from being a very poor use of words, the system appeared to suggest that mistakes would not be tolerated and would therefore be eliminated, something which, as we all know, is an impossible dream. It also encouraged us to find things we wanted to improve in the company and create projects to make them happen. But, strangely, nothing that might have made a real difference ever got done. Far from quality, all that was generated was cynicism and frustration. As a freelance, the only corporate idiocy I have to tolerate is filling in the occasional form or checklist for deluded clients who believe that ISO is anything other than pointless bureaucracy and a meal ticket for the certification agencies.
In fact, if you think about it, what’s wrong with capitalism? It isn’t the principle of charging money for goods or services and it isn’t the idea that you can succeed if you work hard. The problems come when people get forgotten in the drive for profit and find their lives wrecked to make money for faceless shareholders. And that only happens when companies get larger than a critical size. Now I realise it’s impossible for everything to be done on a small scale or a freelance basis. Heavy industry, for example, requires big factories and large-scale investment. But you won’t convince me that an economy that’s full of freelancers and small businesses isn’t a better place to be than one that’s dominated by large corporations.
I’m not saying that freelancing is for everybody. There are people – I’m married to one – who much prefer to be employees. There are others who simply wouldn’t have the self-discipline and determination to make a go of it in their chosen field. And still others who work in areas where freelancing would difficult or impossible. But I am saying that it’s a positive thing, both for those of us who decide to do it and the rest of the world. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I couldn’t imagine a better job.
What about you? Can you imagine a better job than the one you’re doing now? If you can, what are you doing to get there? Please feel free to comment.