In 2014, over 53 million Americans described their employment as freelance- with 38% of these workers being millennials.
In May of 2015, the US Department of Commerce reported the temporary service industry had also reached a record high, with 2.9 million Americans employed as temporary labor or office workers.
Our economy has shifted from a post WW2 system of expansive corporations who “hired to retire”, employing both laborers and white collar workers through their lifetime, to a labor force that will hold dozens of “jobs” throughout their employable years. As the freelance economy grows, its freedom, challenge, and meaningfulness are hailed as the new American dream. Millennials between the ages of 19-33 are particularly quick to accept this new form of project-based employment that offers the freedom of choice and focus around an individual's talents and interests.
Words like “liberated” and “fun-employment” have become the catchphrases for a new generation of self-employed, with discussion beyond this new work way’s positive propaganda still much a social faux paus. Why envy those still stuck in the ice age practices of corporate conglomerates, laboring 40 hours a week under soulless florescent lights in grey cubicles, when one has the opportunity to be their own boss? While we praise the new wave of independence in the American economy, there is a dark underbelly that I fear will lead to an increase of mental and social health issues and a decrease in overall civil stability if left unaddressed.
This new economy has been labeled as the “precarious economy” by those studying our employment shift. In a recent discussion with Dr. Charles Heying, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland University, he noted that a “continuously-employed” labor force is incredibly vulnerable to unfortunate circumstance. With no retirement, no benefits, no overtime protection, and often meager healthcare, this growing sector of a freelance labor force is susceptible to challenges that threaten the most basic survival needs. In the precarious economy, artisans, entrepreneurs, freelancers, temp and service workers do not have the protections of an industrial society afforded to the labor force throughout most of the 20th century.
Even more frightening, as Maeva’s Coffee continues to become an office and sanctuary for the self-employed in our community, I’ve noticed the societal stigma associated with discussing these negative aspects of our current shift. As discussions are curated to romanticize the lifestyle of the self-employed, my neighbors and friends admit quietly to feeling ever alienated and emotionally exhausted by the stress of uncertainty.
What could be more rewarding than a career without limit? Freedom is often billed as the biggest gain of being self-employed or employed on a contract basis. Choice is often more burden than reward with the stress of risk not far behind. While speaking to fellow entrepreneur, friend, and former Maeva’s staff Josh Boykin, who spent several years on-and-off in tech-related contract employment before launching his own business, I was struck by his assessment of challenge. Challenge has always been billed as something we should meet with enthusiasm. In a traditional workplace, challenge may come as welcome temporary climax, ebbing back into a normal pace after a season or business decision has passed. However, those working on a freelance basis are often faced with multiple stressors with no end to this heightened state of emotion. In a corporate structure, marketing, bookkeeping, client management, staffing, production, and growth are managed by multiple specialists. Not every self-employed entrepreneur or contract worker has the talent to keep up with all of these areas, leading to setbacks causing increased levels of anxiety and depression.
After the deaths of Aaron Swartz (Reddit) and Jody Sherman (Ecomom) in 2013, discussion the emotional cost of entrepreneurship slowly began to surface. The assumption that those who are brave enough to set out on their own also have the fortitude to “shake off” setback without experiencing lasting pain is prevalent in an economy which glamorizes those who push beyond their limits to buck the corporate conglomerate way of life. The stigma of anxiety and depression often prevents contract workers and the self-employed from seeking external help, wherein problems are compounded by a snowballing effect of lowered physical care, poor sleep, and self-medication through alcohol or drug abuse.
As freelance work gains momentum and those who partake become a larger share of the electorate, the issue has become a platform of political debate. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized the growing freelance economy’s inattention to labor rights, vowing to “crack down on bosses that exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors.”, using recent litigation against companies such as Uber and Lyft examples of how traditional democratic party principles concerning the labor market are relevant in this growing issue. Meanwhile, republican candidates continue to hail the emerging “gig” economy as a the new frontier for American innovation. To those ground-floor participants of the precarious economy these debates fail to convey the urgency of our situation and lack actionable solution to the immediate the difficulties we face.
Sara Horowitz called out in a The New York Times article last Labor Day for a reassessment of our current labor benefits. While waiting for the political world to catch up to this modern movement, she suggested the creation of a ‘portable benefits program’ administered by modernized unions and other community organizations that would collect payments and distribute benefits to freelance labor as needs occur. I believe the volatility of the freelance labor force may lead to the creation of an entirely new industry- manifesting an opportunity to create a business or a business service that acts as part safety net, part insurance, and part emotional support covering the most basic needs for our lives as we depart from the protections afforded to us in a dying era of corporate employment.
Driving such a solution is the candid discussion of stress, anxiety, and the challenges we face as freelance laborers, artists, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. The life of a laborer in the precarious economy is just that- precarious. It is difficult to heal from the wounds of failure or rebound from the scares of insecurity, especially without the traditional safety nets of unemployment or workman’s comp. Residual stress and anxiety from difficult times build up over the course of our career, making us hypersensitive to potentially stressful projects or business moves and incrementally stunting our ability to succeed. While the greatest protection we can give ourselves as freelance laborers is the ability to set realistic goals and create our own financial safety net, sometimes our starting point must be even more humble. We must remember that our self-worth is not our net worth. As coveted as our freedom-driven work-and-play lifestyle might be, we must allow ourselves the time to sleep, to enjoy good food, to engage in companionship, and to cultivate human interests and curiosities beyond what our employment can grant.
Brent Cebul, “Liberated as Hell: The Autonomous Worker and the Hollowed Workplace” The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2016
Jessica R. Nicholson, “Temporary Help in the US Labor Market,” (ESA Issue Brief No. 03-15) July 1, 2015, US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration; http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/temporary-help-workers-in-the-us-labor-market.pdf
Louis Hyman, “Temps, Consultants, and the Rise of the Precarious Economy”, The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2016