Articles - 23rd April 2020

Worse than 2008? Freelancers in the finance crisis

Words by Linda A. Thompson
Illustration by Jon McCormack

I’d been in my bathroom getting ready to head to my then still-open coworking spot, the radio on in my living room, when the newscaster said what he did.

Clenching my toothbrush between my teeth, I went into the living room and turned the dial up. “Economists were now predicting”, the journalist explained, “that the global economy would take such a beating from the Covid-19 lockdown measures that we were headed for a new economic crisis, one worse than the 2007-2008 one.”

I went back into my bathroom, spat out the mixture of toothpaste and saliva that had accumulated in my mouth, and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach as I rinsed with water. “Not again”, I thought.

I graduated into a tanked economy in 2012. Although the economic crisis supposedly ended four years prior, it didn’t feel like it. The economic slump is the reason I decided to become a freelancer. I couldn’t find a job to save my life. And now, not even 10 years later, now that I’ve come to love freelancing, I have to go through this … again?

At least, that’s how I felt at first. Because after chatting to a couple of salaried and freelance friends, I realised something else – as scary as the prospect of a new economic crisis is, I’d much rather be self-employed than salaried in this moment.

Unlike my friends with jobs, I won’t have to go through the next few months in a state of suspension, my stomach turning into a knot at night whenever I try to figure out the odds that I, rather than Joe in sales will be laid off. (In my mind, people who work office jobs are always are called Joe, Lisa or maybe Karen.)

As a freelancer, I can do something that I couldn’t do the last time round: I can hedge my bets.

In 2012, it seemed like the only way for me to stay in journalism was to take a poorly paid, journalism-adjacent job at a content agency that would have me writing short stories about hearing aids and dispelling five common misconceptions about prostate cancer. Which I didn’t want to do. So I spent countless hours refreshing job sites, looking for job listings that weren’t there.

Today, I have around 15 regular to semi-regular clients who comprise everything from local and international news organisations, to content agencies and large non-profits. The work I do for them is equally varied – I’m writing the sorts of social justice features I’ve always wanted to, sure, but I also translate, copywrite, proofread, edit and occasionally take photos for these clients.

Ever since the lockdown measures went into effect, I’ve hardly done any journalism work, instead focusing on better-paid content writing assignments. Something I was able to do because I have diversified my revenue streams, as any smart freelancer should.

I’m under no illusion that the next months won’t be easy. We’ll all have to go into survival mode and, diversified revenue streams or not, I too am scared for what the future will bring, what I don’t yet know. But I do want to remind you of the one, bright spot I see amid all this depressing economic tea-leaf reading: that freelancers can adjust course in a way that salaried workers never could. Pivot, freelancers, until your heads are spinning.

Or as Jenny Björklöf, a B2B marketing expert and founder of Belgium’s biggest online community for freelancers, puts it: “If you’re a freelancer, you have to be multidisciplinary. You have to have that adaptation in mind. Otherwise you’re going to be poor.”

Björklöf points out that she’s picked up photography, copywriting, and event and project management skills since she’s started organising events for freelancers. “That’s made me quite a good general digital marketer so that I’m not afraid of selling my services in in those directions,” she says.

Also, think about any transferable skills you have, Björklöf advises. Event managers tend to have excellent project management skills and could, for instance, move into freelance project management gigs to survive the economic downturn.

And remember that some industries have been hard, but that others are doing good or even great business. “I look at which types of industries never die, even if it’s a recession. And that’s usually then the food sector and also utilities – so, gas, water, infrastructure, communication,” she says.

Start trying to get a foot into those industries now, she says, by using social media to find people active in these industries and reaching out to them.

For Karel Downsbrough, weathering both this current moment and the coming economic slump has meant pivoting to an altogether different line of work. An until recently China-based video editor and cameraman specialised in winter sports and climbing, all his assignments started being cancelled or put on hold in February already, long before the corona pandemic made its way to Europe.

So Downsbrough, now based in his native Brussels, decided to begin teaching English online. He’d taught English to Chinese students before and had always enjoyed it. The built-in flexibility of online teaching and the large demand for it, particularly out of China, also heavily factored into his decision. “You can take a break from it, but then also get going pretty quickly again,” he says, adding that he’d considered online teaching before to bridge the sometimes-long gap between freelance video production projects.

He advises freelancers contemplating a similar move to see it as a temporary calibration to a temporary situation. “I’m sure it sounds extremely cliché, but it’s also important to see a situation like this as an opportunity to add skills to your repertoire that you can use in times like these,” he says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a time to give up on what you’re doing, but just to add something else so that you become more flexible and a bigger toolbox.”

And no matter what you do, don’t feel like you have to go it alone, Downsbrough says. “Talk to other freelancers to see in general how they’re doing, but also to think strategies together. Because I’m sure that people may be able to look at your situation from a different perspective and give good advice as well,” he says. “And, I mean, we’re all in this together, right?”

Absolutely. So, are you pivoting yet?

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