I'm not a "creator" or "gig-worker" – I'm a freelancer
Self-employment is more than delivering meals or acquiring followers on Instagram.
Why is a freelance career still difficult to describe? Are we so stuck in the 1950’s paradigm of employment that some people can’t fathom alternative career paths? Or, even worse, we lump all freelancers into the same trendy terms of gig workers and content creators?
When asked what I do, I say “I run my own design business”. Otherwise, if I say I’m a freelancer, I risk having conversations like this:
“So you’re a gig-worker. Do you drive for Uber?”
“Ah, then you must be a youtube creator or influencer!”
Sorry, not even close.
“Then how do you make money?”
Is it really that hard to imagine that I provide valuable services to clients who pay me in return?
First the “gig economy” and now the “creator economy” have blown up in the media to the extent that people believe that’s all that freelancing is. Those are the choices for self-employment.
Except, they aren’t. And those of us who’ve built real freelance careers don’t want to fit into those narrow flavour-of-the-month boxes. So where did these terms come from, and how are they different from more traditional forms of freelancing?
The gig economy
The term “gig economy” was coined in 2009 by Tina Brown (former New Yorker editor) describing side hustles or work with no fixed contracts. Think Uber drivers, meal deliveries, and people who moonlight through platforms like Upwork and TaskRabbit.
The gig economy promised you could “be your own boss”, but that was a facade hiding a way for corporations to take advantage of cheap casual labour without benefits or reliable pay. It made the “race to the bottom” of global marketplaces even worse, as it standardised gig-workers into replaceable commodities.
The gig economy, despite its downsides, is still growing, with a market forecasted to reach $455BN by 2023. But its shine wore off long ago when it didn’t live up to the hype for workers:
- Platform lock-in. You gain a non-portable reputation on a platform entirely out of your control. These gatekeepers can change their policies at any time and throw your business into flux.
- Mirage of flexibility. Gig workers are still working for the same corporate overlords (now with less job security and no benefits!).
- Linear pay and limited growth. You’re competing for the same job with countless others who are willing to work for less. And more often than not they are repeatable, low-skill jobs — not truly creative work.
- Not a passionate career choice. Great as a side-gig for supplementary income. But even worse than traditional employment if you try to make it your full-time career. There are limited opportunities to build meaningful relationships and expertise.
The creator (passion) economy
The creator economy — sometimes called the “passion” economy — grew as a rebellion against the repression of the gig economy. As tools for media creation and monetization became cheaper and easier, “living your passion” became a realistic career option if you had the means and desire to produce a lot of content and find a niche audience to monetize.
The creator economy, to a large degree, also broke free from the paradigm of trading time for money. Content can be consumed at any time and income can be more passive (or at least non-linear) — but with the downside of being far less predictable.
It also allowed creators to directly connect to, and interact with, their audiences. And most of all, it celebrated individualism, not uniformity.
There are countless stories of people striking it rich on Youtube or TikTok by growing a following from a passionate niche of eyeballs. No wonder around 30% of kids in the US and UK want to be a Youtuber (my 10-year-old son does too!). Being a “creator” has obvious appeal, but like the gig economy, it has some major downsides:
- You’re at the mercy of algorithms and virality. Creators are part of the “attention economy” where extremism and shallow regurgitated content usually outperform meaningful work.
- Hampster wheel burn-out. Creators need to constantly keep generating content to stay relevant and grow their audience and income. Many sustain it for months or years but eventually burn out under the pressure to perform.
- Inconsistent income. While the potential for growth is large and non-linear, the earnings can be wildly unpredictable. There’s really no such thing as “passive” income, and for every success story, there are WAY MORE failures of people who never monetize their content.
- Great for extroverts, not so much for introverts. At least with video (which is by far the most popular “creator” content). Introverts can try writing, podcasts, or photography, but with less potential for hitting it big time.
The freelance revolution
Humbly carrying on behind these buzzy “new economy” terms is an age-old way of working: freelancing.
Freelancing means being self-employed — running your own business. Not being tied long-term to a particular employer. Instead, working for multiple clients on a per-project basis. Freelancing is way more than gig-working, and it doesn’t require content creation or growing an audience. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and it’s the best career in the world. Here’s why:
- Maximum flexibility. Freelancers choose who to work for, and what type of projects best suit their strengths and interest. Follow your passion without being a content creator.
- No reliance on platforms. You can choose to avoid the crappy clients and rock-bottom prices of marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr, interface directly with your clients, and build real-world relationships and reputation.
- Avoid the attention economy. Your success isn’t dependent on algorithms, audiences, and mass attention. It’s never a popularity contest with the pressure of a performance schedule. You deliver valuable services to your clients and get paid fairly in return.
- Unlimited earning potential. Price by the hour, project, or value-based — you dictate the terms and how much you charge. More expertise = more money. Avoid competing on price entirely.
- Ultimate job security. Building your own business means a job for life.
The real future of work
Gig working and content creation are fads at the mercy of social, economic and technological trends. In time they’ll fade into one of many facets in the changing face of work.
Being self-employed will never go out of style. No matter how many “new economies” they announce, we’ll keep doing our thing and making our money, not caring how much attention we get.
Sources and further reading:
- The new creator economy @ Deccan Herald
- From The Attention Economy To The Creator Economy: A Paradigm Shift @ Forbes
- Passion Economy: What Is It, and Why Is It the Future of Work? @ Passion.io
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.