Big Ideas, Delivered With Impact

Doomed to Freelance?

In Writing on January 13, 2010 at 7:57 am

By Tim Beyers

BusinessWeek has a new cover story in which it describes today as the era of permanent temporary workers, one in which corporate profits have soared as pay has sagged and benefits have gone missing. Read it here.


Be warned: the story is depressing. And yet I take comfort — irrational comfort, possibly, but comfort nonetheless — in this quote:

“With the economy expanding again, and employers loath to add permanent workers, temp employment is one of the few sectors of the labor market that is growing rapidly,” writes BusinessWeek’s Peter Coy.

That’s good news. Skilled writers with the temerity to risk rejection may be positioned to profit from the economic rebound underway, even if the publishing industry isn’t recovering as fast as others. Or at all.

Indeed, this business is harder today than it was when I started in it six years ago. Right now, as I type, Scott Joplin’s “Solace” — also known as the theme to 1973’s, “The Sting,” starring the late Paul Newman and Robert Redford — is reminding me of this truth as it serenades me. I wonder if this freelance binge is a sting meant to get us to accept more assignments for lower pay. Or maybe it’s a permanent economic shift that we, as social writers, will adjust to and ultimately benefit from.

For now, I remain an optimist, even if I am working more now than I ever have before.

Where do you stand? This is an open thread, so please use the comments tab below to share your thoughts. You can also click on the ‘Editorchat” tab above to learn more about the weekly conversation fellow freelancer Lydia Dishman and I host on FriendFeed. Tonight, beginning at 8:30 pm eastern, we’ll be talking about technological shifts. All professional writers and editors welcome.

© Copyright 2015, Tim Beyers.

  1. Prosperity, historically, has been birthed during times of trial. Those individuals with the temerity to take advantage of any adversity thrive while the chaff falls away. One of the common characteristics of successful people is where they have their “locus of focus.” Do they feel a victim of circumstance, or do they feel they are the captains of their own fate? The “techtonic plates” of the economic paradigm are shifting. That’s all. It is a natural progression of a technologically advancing society. Carriage makers and horse whip manufacturers went through this a century ago. Adapt and thrive or pine over situations beyond your control and die.

    I have worked as a freelance editor and writer for years. There are advantages to part-time temporary work. One being you are not beholden to any one company. If you don’t like them…move on. Don’t accept any more assignments.

    No one ever succeeded by being a pessimist. So keep the optimism and tape a copy of “Invictus” next to your computer, :D.

  2. I think “doomed” is the wrong word here. Freelancers have it made when you think about it. I’m a freelance editor and writer (for blogs) and make more money/hour now than I did when I worked for a publishing company (in their sales and design & production departments). I also have as much work as I can handle. On a regular basis I have to turn down work. And the people I work for regularly ask if I can produce more for them.

    The great thing about freelancing is that if any of my regular employers suddenly have no work for me, I can turn to the other four, as well as the half dozen or so who want to know the minute I have free time in my schedule. It’s the ultimate in job security. Plus, I can work from home, on my own schedule.

    I’ve never met a single one of my employers. There is little to no inter-office political crap to deal with. We all get along well and we all understand what it’s like to work remotely and to freelance (as we’ve pretty much all been in that boat at one point or another).

    So “doomed” is really the wrong word here. I think those with the opportunities to freelance should really embrace it and make the most of it. I was forced into it when the publishing company I worked for closed (I’d been doing a bit on the side here and there, but nothing even approaching full time). But it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t think I could ever go back to a regular, 9-5 type job in an office again.

  3. I come down on the side of the optimists as well, with a caveat: the light at the end of the tunnel is some considerable time away.

    Employers will exploit the downturn’s impact on fulltime employment to get their corporate health care obligations (20-30 percent over an employee’s salary) off the books.

    They’ll use the connecting power of the Internet to tap highly skilled freelancers across the country and around the world to execute and manage projects when they need them (just-in-time employment, if you will). That boosts their employee productivity significantly.

    On the freelance side, those same connecting and collaboration tools vastly expand their potential client base. (And no, I don’t see a world of digital sweat shops like ODesk taking over).
    Every recession is a forcing mechanism, and this one will usher in a huge transformation in how we work.

    So all of that is how it should work. But getting to there from here will be tough. Most companies just aren’t savvy enough in leveraging the Internet for freelance help. Many freelancers are figuring it out as well (all while scrambling for work).

    I’ve blogged a bit about the Gig Economy and spent time in the Gig Economy for half of 2009. It holds promise but it won’t happen overnight, even though all the keys are in place to make it a reality.

    Cheers to Tim for creating yet another interesting conversation point.


  4. My favorite writers came out of an age where freelancing was the norm. When you think about it, writing for a salary became a standard only in the past 50 or 60 years. Journalists were extremely mobile and entrepreneurial before the Guild came into play. I know 20 years about, freelance writing was a tough way to make a living and lots of people worked in house, but we also lost a great deal of creative and journalistic freedom. And I think we lost a certain amount of respect in the process.

    We have a chance to go back to a better level of writing now with the “gig economy.”

  5. Well, doomed to freelance is not bad compared to being a doomed freelancer. Here in NZ most freelancers I know know have no work at all… nothing, nada, niente… and those who have are paid so little, and sometimes they are asked to work for free…

  6. Labor economists have been saying for years that those who succeed in the future will have to keep “reinventing” themselves, to keep learning and adding value to the services they offer. That’s certainly true in freelancing. With all the new technologies, social media marketing strategies, and Web-driven outlets, we have to keep learning the new tools and new ways to adapt our craft.

    These are NOT roadblocks! They are opportunities, and I’m glad to see so many optimists in this thread. But I’m not surprised, since successful freelancers as a group have already made the leap to look for alternatives to what used to be the “normal” workplace. We know the tradeoffs between flexibility and uncertainty, between more control over our lives and more responsibility to find work. And I think the real pros are those who can take advantage of their experience and time-tested principles and use modern tools to succeed.

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