Articles - 31st March 2020

Working alone everywhere; Perceptions of Freelancing around the World

Words by Tina Nielsen
Illustration by Darren Shaddick

Freelance creatives work all day in their pyjamas, right?

And we only work when we can be bothered.

Of course, it’s much less stressful than an office career because you can decide when you want to work – you’re your own boss after all.

Any creative professional who has spent even a short time freelancing will recognise the myths surrounding a freelance lifestyle.

It is true that being self-employed comes with many advantages, not least a highly priced flexibility and creative freedom. But, as most freelancers will testify, constantly hustling for jobs and not knowing where the next assignment is coming from can be stressful. And while it is true that freelancing brings an ability to set your own hours, there is usually a requirement to at least match the basic office hours of your client.

However, assumptions about freelancing are not limited to office-bound colleagues imagining a parallel universe of no rules, no obligations and blissful freedom. Depending on where you are in the world, freelancing can be seen through a very different lens.

Almost regardless of geography, the freelance worker is rarely associated with financial stability. As one London-based hair stylist comments, a bank would never assume he makes a lot of money when considering an application for a mortgage. “The assumption is that earnings are low and unpredictable,” he says.

In Japan this association goes one step further. In a society where the desired life is still one as a so-called salaryman, consisting of a regular job and a job for life at that, the growing army of freeters – the word seemingly an amalgamation of freelance and arbeiter, which is German for worker – remains somewhat on the fringes of the working society and are equated with irregular workers.

But many of Japan’s younger generation embracing self-employed life cite exactly this stability as a reason for rejecting a life as a salaryman. A 2016 survey conducted by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, younger people expressed a wish to avoid a salaryman career, which is often associated with death-by-overwork. The salaryman is often expected to put work before the family.

Maida Pineda from the Philippines chose to leave an office job and pursue freelancing in 1998 when she decided sitting through meetings and the structure of being in an office was not for her. She has worked as a freelancer in her home country and beyond in countries including Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. She has witnessed a change in attitudes in the last 20 years.

“When I started, I don’t think people in the Philippines really respected freelance writers much,” she says. “And to be honest, there weren’t many out there – I guess a person with a full-time job in a magazine was more impressive than a freelancer. That was a long time ago, when digital publications didn’t exist. It was magazines, actual print publications.”

But these days it’s another story. “Everything is digital and it is more common. There are many content producers in the Philippines. I guess it’s just a matter of quality of writing they do and what publications or websites they contribute to,” she says though she adds there is still a stigma attached to freelancing. “I suppose some say it’s not a real job, but these days, with the boom of content creators including people who earn from blogs and YouTube, Filipinos have started to see the possibility as a freelance writer.”

In the western world – arguably more accustomed to the practice of freelancing – this image problem exists too. Brandy Gonsoulin who has freelanced as a writer and content creator on and off in her career says this is dependent on the industry.

“For media and creative, freelancing is an expected title and more vastly used from my experience, but across professional services, for instance, I have seen where the title freelancer is discouraged and people may shift to titles such as consultant which is taken more seriously,” she says.

“I think this difference lends itself to the ‘hustle’ attitude and short-term life cycle of a project that a freelancer might work on and also the label it has as being a transitionary title, so it’s looked at as less serious and more displaceable. It tends to have a bit of an ‘I’m in-between jobs’ tone than ‘this is what I chose’.”

The spike in freelancers all over the world points to a shift in the way we work generally. In the UK, the Association of Independent Professionals and Self-employed estimates that 14% of the workforce is in freelance employment. On the granular level, The National Union of Journalists reports a 67% increase in freelance journalists between 2000 and 2015. And according to the Creative Industries Federation, 27% of designers are freelance.

In the US, a 2019 report by Upwork and the Freelancers Union found that 57 million workers – or 35% – earn a living as a freelancer, an increase of four million in the last five years. In Japan, the figure is 3.41 million people – or about 5% of Japan’s total labour force.

People decide to go freelance for many different reasons – a desire to retain creative control of work; fitting in family responsibilities; redundancy or supplementing their regular salary. The influx of new professionals to the freelance ranks might well be down to the myths that still pervade the self-employed professions.

Karen Thuermer, who has freelanced in the US since 1992, believes many younger people don’t see the hard work side of freelancing “Most see it as a way to enjoy a more flexible lifestyle, or earn extra income. Those not in journalism don’t understand the work that is involved. They like the appeal of working from one’s home, but don’t always understand that to be successful and to earn a living wage, one must work long hours,” she says. “It’s not an eight-hour per day job, and not a 9 to 5 job. The fact that there are no benefits (insurance, paid leave, retirement benefits) is a negative. I’d say most working Americans are practical about what’s involved. It’s not an issue of being negative towards freelancing, just practical. “

Meanwhile those who have enjoyed freelance careers for some time are starting to consider their options, according to Gonsulin – especially if their craft is more old than new media. “I have seen freelance writers really start to question the feasibility of it as a career track especially when media doesn’t pay well, and the cost of healthcare has driven people – myself included – to seek more traditional 9-5 jobs.” She says.

“On the creative side, I have seen more higher-in-demand creatives such as software and web developers really tap into it since they can command a higher price tag while still controlling their time, and since this talent is so hard to hire if you’re not Google, they have more power in the relationship. So I think it depends on the skillset you are talking about.”

The way freelancers are perceived continues to be mixed with many not seeing a freelance career as a serious path. In the 2017 report Creative Freelancers, the UK’s Creative Industries Federation concluded that “the view of freelancers as people who can’t get a proper job or as people not doing proper jobs still has some currency. This is unfair and unhelpful.”

But it is becoming more popular across the world – a new group of freelancers have emerged with the so-called gig economy, made up of casual workers within sectors such as food delivery and car services. More traditional freelance workers are keen to distinguish themselves from the casual nature of the gig economy and reinforce the serious nature of a creative freelancing career, based on craft not convenience.

Ironically, the gig economy might ultimately be what the freelancing community needs to improve its image and take away the stigma as it normalises the practice of freelancing across society and across the world.

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