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Why Freelancing Became More Stable Than Employment

COVID-19 has amplified existing trends — uncovering the skeleton of the old, dead, linear career model.

You were comfortable. Rising in your workplace, maybe at a management role with a promotion on the way. Years of loyalty to your employer was finally paying off. Your respect and responsibilities were growing with a salary to match.

Then BOOM. The pandemic hit, everyone freaked out, and you find yourself jobless — now scrambling to put together your own website and resume — to try out this brave new world of freelancing.

Or maybe you’ve been freelancing for years, possibly decades. Except it never felt real. Even your family and friends didn’t treat it like a serious career. “When are you going to get a real job” they’d say.

Real jobs (a.k.a. full-time employment) used to be a safe and secure choice. A stable paycheck each week in exchange for 8 hours of your life every day in someone else’s office, helping them build their business while they pay you just enough to keep you from leaving.

Since the industrial revolution, this has been the definition of work. It’s not anymore.

Where’s the stability and security now? What have those years of loyalty and hard work left you with? Anxiety and uncertainty in the best of circumstances. Unemployment and desperation in the worst.

Those of us who escaped the system years ago have already felt the freedom and security of the new world of work. When asked, most experienced freelancers (myself included) will say that no amount of money would be enough to get them back into employment. It’s not just Millennials who feel this way. I’m a few years too old— more of a Xennial — and I’ve never (even as a teen in the ’90s) felt a strong desire to be employed by one organization when I could build my own business and client base instead.

We can’t blame COVID-19. The truth is these trends could be seen for years, if not decades. But the pandemic has accelerated this transformation of work and amplified the redefinition of an ideal career. It’s flipped our generations-long notion of career security on its head. Now it’s all of us — those without “real jobs” — who are primed to thrive while everyone else is freaking out.

Freelancers rule the world now.

Don’t believe me? Here’s why.

The immortal hydra stole your egg basket

Perhaps the biggest thing this pending depression has taught us is the weakness of having a single income stream. When your livelihood rests at the hands of one employer, things can go bad even when your boss has the purest intentions. Nobody wanted to lay off their employees, but they do what is necessary to keep their business alive.

I’m sure you’ve heard the thing about not putting all your eggs in one basket?

Freelancers, by their very nature, have multiple income streams. Each client and project is an isolated relationship that’s not impacted by the loss of another.

You’re a hydra, and your nine heads make you difficult to kill. Lose one, and you simply grow back another to replace it. The more entrepreneurial among us may have even more diversified income streams consisting of consulting, training, mentoring, or writing on the side. Heads upon heads of varying forms.

Portfolio careers are the new aspiration. They are a framework for the lateral future of work based on three fundamental admissions:

  1. It’s not likely we’ll spend our entire careers in the same industry, let alone a single company. Specializing in just one thing is too limiting in our rapidly changing world. And gone are the days that loyalty to an employee meant a career-ladder-climbing job for life.
  2. You may never find your “perfect” job, but that’s OK because you’ve got many. Some projects may be done for money, others for passion, and others for the fulfillment of being challenged or learning new things. One employer can never satisfy all your needs, but multiple clients and a variety of projects can.
  3. Forget work-life balance, we want work-life integration. It’s about the flexibility to constantly reshape our careers and rebalance risk to shifting life and family priorities.
Freelancers don’t put all their eggs in one basket because we don’t even believe in your construct of a basket.

We can build, grow, shrink, and destroy new vessels as we please, and fill them with whatever shape of work we like.

While you were growing someone else’s business, we built our own reputations

What is business really, except for ownership of assets, reputation, relationships, and processes that help create value and get things done more efficiently?

As an employee, you’re using someone else's assets and processes to grow their business, relationships, and reputation, while very little trickles back down to you. If you leave that company you’ll have a new line on your resume, a letter of recommendation, and some growth in knowledge and experience added to your bag of professional tools. But most of the value you’ve created in your time there isn’t portable. It’s owned by them and doesn’t travel with you down your career path.

We solopreneurs want more career control and professional fulfillment than that. We own our wins so each success directly ads to our growing personal brands and reputations — building lasting client relationships that nurture us symbiotically. We choose and change our favorite tools and refine our ideal processes to shape the way we work for optimal efficiency. We work harder and more passionately because there’s nowhere to hide. We have to own our mistakes too.

All that hard work is an investment back into something that’s ours. It’s the difference between renting a house vs. owning your own home. Either way, you’re spending too much money each month, but at least one of them is growing your own equity, not someone else's.

Every day a freelancer does good work and satisfies a client is a day they are directly growing their own highly-portable worth. There’s no greater career control than that.

The gig economy is now the expert economy

Today’s freelancers don’t look like they used to. The best talent is leaving full-time employment in droves. Either by choice — because they want to work for themselves — or by necessity due to economic disruption.

The new breed of freelancers doesn’t operate like gig-workers. We are professional businesses. We offer the same mastery of our craft and relationship management that’s expected of an agency, but we deliver it through more personal interaction and cost-efficient processes.

The influx of experienced professionals makes the freelance market the place to find experts with ease. What could take 30 days to fill an employee position now takes 2 days to vet a new freelancer online? And since freelancers work on a per-project basis there’s less risk if you chose the wrong one. Simply find a better one for your next project. Long-term relationships must be earned.

Demand for reliable freelancers is higher than ever. As businesses attempt to climb out of the Coronavirus recession they’ll be filling lost positions with low-risk freelancers on temporary contracts so they can scale up or down with ease.

The trick? You have to be an expert to be seen above the masses and attract primo work. The global freelance marketplace will always be overcrowded with wannabes who compete on price — don’t even go there. The winners in the new expert economy are the ones who bust through the outdated stigma of flaky freelancers and delight their clients through over-delivery of skill and professionalism.

Now is a great time to be an independent expert — a reliable pro who can swoop in and take control of a project from start to finish. Those who’ve gotten past the gig mentality and committed themselves to mastery of their craft will be invaluable assets in the times to come.

Remote work is here to stay

And who better to do it than those of us who’ve been mastering it all this time.

Most freelancers are already experts at working remotely. Remote work means knowing how to communicate well, both real-time and asynchronously. It means self-discipline and building trust that you’ll accomplish your goals no matter how and when you choose to work. It required project and time management to master the details before they spiral out of control.

I’ve been doing those things for 18 years. The WFH movement is business as usual for us. While everyone else is touting this as the future of work, we’re wondering why it took them so long to get here.

TL;DR

Why freelancing has become more stable than employment:

Who’s career feels more stable now?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 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.