Articles - 19th November 2020

Baby Boomer Freelancer

Words by James McLoughlin
Illustration by James Merritt

In recent years, the ‘typical’ contemporary freelancer has come to be seen as a young urbanite, hustling from job to job from the confines of a hot-desk mecca or a makeshift home office. Whether truly self-employed or working through agencies on temporary contracts, the idea of a millennial-majority freelance workforce is compelling for a few reasons.

According to a 2018 Top 10 Global Consumer Trends study, the flexibility, autonomy and location-independence of freelancing reflects a broader desire among millennials and younger members of the overall workforce for self-determination. In addition, as full-time wages continue to stagnate against living costs and commuting prices undergo yearly hikes, the stable financial income of a full-time employment has become less of a draw.

Anecdotally, many people my own age (I’m 30, but keep it to yourself) have moved into freelance work in pursuit of a better work-life balance.

A fellow freelance writer I know, who’s in his late 20s, told me: ‘I always wanted to write and, like most writers, I went freelance in order to make more time for myself. I really enjoy it: no commute, plenty of time to think, no shitty meal deals for lunch. I’ve worked two full-time professional jobs, one in advertising, the other in publishing, and I now freelance for both of those companies. I earn less, on average, than when I was in-house, but my travel, food, and other costs are down.’

But despite the stereotype, the bulk of the self-employed workforce is actually made up of over 40s. Made clear in this IPSE report which shows that Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers account for over 50% of freelancers, whether fully self-employed or working on a contractual basis. The report also indicates a sharp rise in the number of over-60s going it solo, which no doubt reflects the fading dream of traditional retirement and the ability to use a lifetime’s experience to build credibility with potential contracts.

This is showcased by Barnaby Benson, who runs his own copywriting agency and described to me the value of sales experience to workers thinking of forging out on their own. As Barnaby says: ‘I had previous in-house sales, management and advertising experience, which helped me promote my new business and build a reliable network of contacts to stay in touch, growing the agency successfully over time.’

Another contact, who has over a decade of teaching and lecturing experience, told me of her move into bona-fide self-employment: ‘Initially I was working for someone else who subcontracted out to me. When my ‘boss’ became too controlling, I struck out on my own again. Using the teaching skills I had acquired over time, I got in business training. And that’s what I did for quite a few years – writing bespoke courses a lot of the time and delivering them. That really suited me as a lifestyle: it combined all my favourite activities and experience: researching, analysing; writing; teaching/facilitating.’

These perspectives suggest that attitudes to freelancing between different generations share more commonalities than we might expect. Nevertheless, there are divergences. Millennials and those entering the workforce today have grown up with the technology that enables remote, flexible work, and generally expect their employment to reflect that freedom from the outset of their careers.

Meanwhile, those in older demographics appear to take the view that following a slightly more traditional career path for some time can be beneficial when undertaking the transition to working for yourself.

Nevertheless, there has been a broader evolution in the attitudes of older generations to freelance work, prompted perhaps by the dismantling of traditional notions of what retirement should look like. This is backed up by a New York Times story, which suggests that retirees are turning to freelance work to fill the gaps in their retirement funds, or else to transition more gradually away from the world of work.

Whatever the reason, there’s a clear trend for freelance work becoming a mainstream form of employment across all age groups. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of workers in the self-employed sector rose from 3.3 million in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, contributing over £250bn to the UK economy, and there’s no sign of this particular curve being flattened any time soon.

A friend who works in graphic design, and has switched between agency-based contractual work and full-time, in-house employment, reckons this trend might be impacted by current economic and social issues, such as Brexit, IR35 and, of course, COVID-19:

‘The world of freelancing is changing for sure. With the looming threat of IR35 and the uncertainty that Covid has caused, I’ve seen a lot of people (myself included) trade in their freelance positions at agencies for full-time positions, purely for more security.’

He goes on to explain that this impact is probably a temporary disruption to the freelance wave: ‘Once the world goes back to normal, I think you’ll find a lot more people braving the freelance world again, as the control over your life (time off) and the variation it provides is really refreshing. I think as people get older the idea of having three days’ work one week, four days the next appeals, as they might have children or want to live away from the city. And as your day-rate increases working less days/hours becomes much more viable.’.

COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the ease and convenience of remote, flexible working, so it’s easy to see this prediction playing out, as employees resist a return to the straitjacket of a 9-5 office shift. What’s clear is that, across generations, self-employment is increasingly becoming not just a viable career for older generations, but a desirable one.

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