This is a blog post by Hub Islington Member Host and freelance journalist Rachel Hills.
I first went full-time freelance a few weeks after my 23rdbirthday.
I was a year out of university, and I knew I wanted to write about politics and social issues, but didn’t really know how to go about it. I’d spent the previous 12 months balancing a good-on-paper day job with nights volunteering on a youth social enterprise that made my heart sing, working alongside some of the most talented and inspirational twenty-somethings I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting: all of them part of a burgeoning community of young social and creative entrepreneurs.
Buoyed by their confidence and success, and with three whole articles in one of Australia’s major newspapers under my belt, it seemed like the perfect time to join them and launch a freelance career of my own.
It was and it wasn’t. The work came quickly enough, but not at high enough volumes to constitute anything close to even a pitiable salary. I would joke that I was like the Enron of freelance journalism: successful on the outside, falling apart financially on the inside. At the same time, there was no question that freelancing had given me a platform to do things I’d never be given the opportunity to do as an entry-level employee – publish in major magazines, speak at writers’ festivals, have my little black and white headshot printed next to my opinion pieces in the newspaper. “I saw you in the paper today!” my friends used to text me. My mother purchased a machine to laminate my articles.
Back then, I saw freelancing as the sneaky backdoor route that would take me to my dream job. The entry-level job market might be flooded to the point where getting an interview seemed as much a roll of the dice as a reflection on one’s CV (and this was pre-financial crisis – it’s worse now), but that wasn’t the only way in. I would get the attention of the editors I wanted to work with by doing the job I wanted them to hire me for whether I was on the masthead or not.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. A recent survey of 3000 independent professionals by online freelance platform Elance found that 47.3 percent identified (like me) as millennials – those born after 1981. “For the younger generation, freelance has moved from something a few people do, to a mainstream choice,” Elance chief executive Fabio Rosati told CNBC. “Millennials are becoming freelancers faster.” Seventy-seven percent possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 27 percent had a masters degree.
Eventually, for me, the strategy worked. A couple of weeks before my 25th birthday, I was offered two “dream jobs” within hours of one another. My next position too was one I was headhunted for. I continued freelancing on the side – writing features, and columns, and doing speaking gigs – but this time I had the stability of a salary to back it up.
When I returned to full-time freelancing again, when I moved to London in mid-2010, it was a different story. This time I wasn’t freelancing as a way to get people to hire me, but as an end to itself: a way to do the work I most wanted to, do as much of it as I liked (which is to say “a lot”), and to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to pushing forward my career and creativity in a manner I’ve found comparatively difficult as an employee.
Freelancing has been good to me, and it has been good to a lot of other people I know who are in the same boat as I am: people who are educated, proactive, confident, and who thrive on the non-stop hustle. I’m glad I live in a culture and economy that allows me to be the driver of my own career, to sell my work across five continents, to be the driver of my own projects.
But I worry that the same social forces that have given me the freedom to pursue my career in the way I want to are denying others the freedom to pursue their work in more stable conditions. Being your own boss is great for some, but it isn’t for everyone. No doubt some of those millennials surveyed by Elance were there because they love the autonomy and flexibility the freelance life can offer. A recent survey of UK freelancers found that only 7 percent would trade in the freelance life for a salaried gig if it was offered to them tomorrow.
But it’s worth noting that that survey was run by freelancers’ accounting firm SDJ Accountancy, meaning those surveyed were doing well enough in their businesses to need to hire an accountant in the first place. In other words: the educated, the proactive, and the confident.
I wonder if the people earning £5 an hour on content farms – or the people cobbling together their wages through a mix of part-time temp work, contracts and freelancing – would feel the same way.
This is part of a series of member blogs for 50 days of Freelancing. To find out more go here or contact Sam, Debbie or Rachel at [email protected]