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THE WORK ISSUE | Luke O’Neil

Surviving the gig economy

Going solo as a worker has risks, but thrills are even greater

Philip Giordano for the Boston Globe

BaCK in May a mud-flinging spat between the popular media companies Gawker and Vice flared up online. Vice, as Gawker contended, woefully underpays its staff. That probably shouldn’t have come as news to anyone who has an eye on the current media landscape, since everyone underpays everyone, but having contributed recently as a freelancer to both sites, I thought it might be illustrative to chime in with the pay rates I was offered by each, and, for that matter, the 20 other odd publications and sites I’ve written for in the past year or so.

“This is really brave. I am glad someone did this,” was one regular refrain among the hundreds of responses I received after my blog post. “Is this guy crazy?” was another. Talking about money? In the world of freelancing, we all suddenly turn into aristocratic matriarchs. It’s just not done.

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“There’s huge social pressure not to talk about money, and employers often exploit that,” one poignant comment on my blog post read, “hoping the underpaid people won’t realize how badly they are underpaid.”

Welcome to the so-called gig economy. Freelance writers are probably the most familiar type of independent workers, yet, whether driven by choice or market forces, more and more people in occupations as varied as academia, accounting, and acupuncture, are striking out on their own. It’s a constant hustle that can offer increased work-life flexibility but, as often, includes employers with take-it-or-leave-it attitudes and little income security. Is it really sustainable to have a wide swath of the modern American workforce making ends meet this way?

Plenty of Americans are trying. The US government doesn’t regularly count the nation’s freelancers — which makes you wonder about unemployment figures — but at last estimate, in 2006, the country had about 42 million independent workers, or about one-third of the workforce.

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There’s every indication that number has risen following the Great Recession — in July, the Freelancers Union, the country’s largest advocacy and resources group for those of us in the gig economy, reported a 400 percent increase in its membership ranks since 2007. The widely cited Third Annual Independent Workforce Report, compiled by management-services firm MBO Partners last year, suggested that, by 2020, 50 percent of the workforce will have spent time as an independent worker (although that includes everyone from freelancers and contractors to self-employed small business owners).

No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot more people striking out on their own than there used to be. And why not? The Affordable Care Act means health insurance is no longer an excuse to stay in a dead-end job. Technology is also smoothing the way: Consider the proliferation of shared work spaces, the growth of gig-by-gig employment sites like Elance-oDesk, the Internet marketplace that matches up employers with a task with qualified freelancers, as well as sharing-economy employers like Uber.

“It’s easier to market yourself on the Internet, find projects, and certainly the costs of setting up shop is far less with all of the tools out there,” Gene Zaino, president and CEO of MBO Partners, said. “You can work pretty much anywhere.”

Age demographics come into play as well, but on both ends of the newly independent workforce. Older workers who may have lost their jobs but aren’t quite ready for retirement have cobbled together freelance work in fields they have experience in, or new ones they may have always wanted to try their hand at. “Thirty-three percent of independent contractors are baby boomers,” Zaino says. Many late-career freelancers are the most successful at it because they have years’ worth of contacts and networking to draw on.

With recent college graduates, freelancing is almost a given, according to Dan Lavoie, director of strategy at Freelancers Union. “This is what they expect their career to be, putting together gigs and projects, and perusing a whole mix of ways of earning the revenue they need to live the life they want.”

The life that they want — that’s the key phrase when it comes to the incoming generation of workers. Many are purposefully opting out of the traditional job structures because they chafe at the constraints or want more variety or freedom. That’s certainly the reason why I chose this life myself.

Not all fields are created equally, however. “If you are in a freelance industry in high demand, like data science or software development, it’s relatively easy to win clients, make more money, and have more freedom than in a traditional employee job,” says Marcus Ellison, founder of Wurk Happy, a service aimed at improving the invoicing and payment relationships between freelancers and clients. Other industries — like, say, freelance writing — are highly competitive with too many candidates vying for fewer and fewer positions, which can be exasperating to those trying to gain a foothold.

Aside from the predictable jobs, there are some surprising areas where independent work is becoming more common. Zaino mentions that nurse practitioners and even freelance doctors are on the rise. The Freelancers Union has also seen growth in unexpected places, including health and, in particular, alternative health jobs, like yoga, reflexologists, and so on, but also everything from lawyers and accountants, to landscapers, nannies, and chefs.

Those in this new freelance workforce may quickly find that it’s not all a picnic. The freedom of being your own boss can often be hard to balance with keeping up a big enough workload to bring in a liveable income.

And then there is dealing with your employers. As little regard as firms seem to have for full-time employees — 76 percent report making a move to deteriorate the traditional benefits, according to a recent study by Towers Watson, despite corporations being richer than ever before — there’s even less accountability for many independent contractors or freelancers. Not my employee, not my problem, the thinking goes.

So my peers and I must constantly fight in order to get paid on time, with no hope of retirement benefits, or a 401k or any of the other traditional expectations of the old model worker. The Globe, where I’ve freelanced for almost ten years now quite regularly, pays me the same rate as when I first started. Although rates remaining static as opposed to dropping is practically winning the lottery.

I have no idea what my full-time colleagues at the Globe make. I imagine it’s comfortable but not quite so much as it used to be. In truth, though, I don’t really want to know. Because there’s no reasonable amount that I could be offered that would get me to go sit at the same desk in an office somewhere day after day, looking at the same faces, and answering to the same people.

Despite all of its negative consequences and potential for disaster, you really cannot put a price on the freedom that going it on your own delivers. As anyone who’s ever walked a tightrope before will tell you, the potential for falling is scary. But the thrill of making it across is worth the risk.

Luke O’Neil is a regular contributor to the Globe and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.
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