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The Expanding Definition Of Independence In The Freelance Economy

The nation’s growing freelance workforce doesn’t have the security of benefits and paid vacation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Expanding Definition Of Independence In The Freelance Economy
[Photo: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images]

Holidays are retro. We think of the Fourth of July as a vision of piling the family in the station wagon and heading off to the beach to pass the federally mandated day off. But all of that is predicated on the old idea of what it means to have a job: walking into an office at 9 a.m., leaving at around 5 p.m., living with the security of benefits and paid vacation.

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That world is gone. In its place are jobs that come and go, with few or no benefits and little salary leverage. Forget about retirement plans.

As new-style flexible job markets have flourished to fill the void–such as app-based services like Lyft and Handy–so has an ongoing debate among economy-watchers, and labor and business leaders about whether this new type of work is better or worse than having a “traditional” job. That debate is a waste of time.

People are having these discussions as if there’s a choice: Should you take an old-model job or a new one? Lost in that discussion is the fact that it’s comparing the new gig work to the 1950s model of stable employment–a model that no longer exists–rather than measuring it against the reduced-benefit, overtime-exempt full-time jobs available in 2015. When you take a sober look at the real choice today, it’s not much of a choice at all.

Out of necessity, more and more freelancers are leading the way. They’ve already figured out that it’s possible to put your working life together in new, mold-breaking ways. It starts from an acknowledgment of the reality, however uninspiring, that they have fewer avenues to traditional wealth. Instead, they’re working backwards, calculating how much they need to cover their expenses, and dialing back their work accordingly.

The result frees up more time for other pursuits and other ways to feel enriched, whether it’s family or travel, dedicating more time to exercise or learning a new skill. And just as a freelancer is more likely to be doing something other than paid work at times during the week, she’s also more likely to be spending her Fourth of July on the laptop, co-mingling work and personal time as she normally does.

Workers don’t have the choice to wait for companies to do the right thing–so they’re moving forward, apportioning their time differently, choosing to work less. Call it the emergent labor response.

The flip-side of that vaunted 9-to-5 system was that from the moment you walked into work, your employer owned you. Your entire identity was subsumed into whatever the company was producing and how the company was valued. For personal tasks or responsibilities, you had wait until you clocked out for the day and hope you would still have the time.

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Today’s leading-edge workers are deliberate about how they spend their days, their evenings and their “time-off”. They realize that their mix of wage work and passion work can and should be a source of personal fulfillment. Senator Mark Warner, one of the few national lawmakers to show leadership on adapting to this new economy, put it nicely in a recent column for the Washington Post, when he noted that we used to ask people, “Where do you work?,” but now we’re more like to ask: “What are you working on?” Listen closely, and it’s not just a question about work. It’s a question about vocation, about the individual.

Freelancers have already learned to follow that new North Star. They are opting out of many things they were always told they were supposed to want–the car and the starter home and the company holiday. They can’t afford to be nostalgic about a world that has passed. They are busy helping to create a new one, re-imagining the American Dream by embracing a new and truly meaningful independence.

About the author

Sara Horowitz is the founder and Executive Director of Freelancers Union, a national labor group that represents freelancers including selling health insurance and other products.

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