One of my rather brilliant freelance friends, Abi Silvester, has given us her thoughts on some of the myths freelancers come up against…
I’ve been freelancing for nearly six months now, and am absolutely loving the freedom, variety and opportunities for career progression that my new situation has afforded. I’ve made some great new connections and worked with some top line companies and brands. It would have to be something of a dream job to tempt me away from being my own boss, but are there any drawbacks at all?
Only one, actually: the fact that the perception of freelancers hasn’t moved on at all since last time I went self-employed – five years ago. So here’s a rundown of the stubborn misapprehensions about freelancers that just refuse to die.
1. We all work from home (pyjamas optional)
Let’s get the big one out of the way first, shall we? Because I’ve now realised that no matter how many contract roles with punishing long office hours I undertake as a freelance contractor, nobody but my closest friends will ever accept that I’m doing anything other than sitting at home stuffing my face with chocolate biscuits and watching cat videos on YouTube all day. This one ain’t going away, folks, you can either roll with it or do as I do and get yourself very worked up and angry trying to educate the world on why they are wrong. It’s really up to you.
If you do want to try and argue the cause, here are a few zingers that I’ve deployed in past debates that I’ve found to be effective:
(a) plenty of employed people work from home, and there’s nothing inherently lazy about that. In many organisations, making the decision as to where you work is a mark of seniority, and home can be more conducive to getting stuff done. Who wants to colleagues’ questionable music (and ringtones) and conversations about their holidays all day anyway?
(b) as more companies have put a freeze on hiring permanent staff, more ‘regular office workers’ are, in fact, self-employed: the person who sits next to you, gets in at 8 every day and works their butt off may actually be one of these freelancer types. Have a look at your company’s current employment practices, they might just surprise you
(c) I don’t wear pyjamas anyway, I prefer to sleep, and <s>muck about on social media</s> work, naked.
2. We don’t have ‘real’ jobs
There is no question that I work harder as a freelancer than I do as an employee, and I’m sure my experience of this is pretty typical. If I had to put a percentage on it, my output would probably work out as 150-200% higher when self-employed. It’s pretty obvious why: as a freelancer, it’s rare to turn down work even when you’re already swamped, because you don’t have the safety-net of redundancy and other benefits (but more about that later). The more positive side of this particular coin is the opportunity it affords for us to get involved with more of what we love and gain wider experience more quickly — while our employed friends complain about losing out on more satisfying projects at work as they’re needed on a duller one, we can be greedy and take both. But we’re still presumed to be doing less…
How do I know this idea is out there? Well. Mostly because perfectly well-meaning friends (who should know better!) regularly invite me to join them at things that take place in the middle of the day when they’re on annual leave or ‘off sick’. RUMBLED! Yup, they think we have hours of free time even when we’re are undertaking a major project – and this is the friendly Freudian slip that betrays it. I’ve even had a good friend jokingly tell me ‘you don’t do anything all day – come to the cinema!’ That person did not make that mistake again…
In fairness, perhaps they do remember a time when we had a few weeks of quiet time when we chose to focus on frivolous non-work pursuits like our family, home improvements or other essential bits of ‘life admin’ — things that they do at weekends once they’ve clocked off, while we’re often still getting the hours in. Working from contract to contract can leave a person frazzled and behind on the basics of keeping body and soul together; housekeeping tasks we’d stay on top of in a more predictable schedule can get sidelined, and a bit of calm organisational time between gigs is crucial for sanity and in some cases sanitation…have you ever worked so hard you had to schedule in your showers? Welcome to the freelance life!
3. We can’t get mortgages or other types of finance
‘Freelancing sounds great – for you – but I couldn’t do it’ was a sentence that came out of a friend’s lips recently. When I asked why, they reeled off the usual spiel about job security (see point 4) and then the concern that self employed people are considered to be some kind of massive credit risk. I pointed out that I myself am a homeowner and my credit rating was last calculated to be the highest possible score of 999 – and they looked a bit surprised.
Putting my own circumstances aside for a minute, this one is not without a basis in truth: many mortgage providers do want to see a lot of evidence that you can earn a certain regular income before they’ll grant you a loan – and understandably so. Depending on whether you’re buying jointly or alone it can work out easier all round if you secure your mortgage before entering into the world of self employment – but there is usually nothing to stop you going freelance once it’s set up.
This is not to say it’s impossible to apply successfully while self-employed – as an established freelancer you should not have a problem – but many banks will want to see two years’ records. The main issue here is timing, so you may want to consider carefully the implications of going freelance very shortly before applying for a home loan if you’re buying alone or your partner is also newly self-employed. If all you’re after is a decent credit card, your employment type should not be an issue as long as you’re earning.
4. We don’t have job security
This one is another personal bugbear: I’ve felt nervous and unstable as an employee in a floundering company and confident enough to turn down work as a freelancer – and also the reverse at times. It’s probably prudent to take seriously the common complaint that there is ‘no such thing as job security any more’ – but I do believe that ‘career security’ is real whether you’re on someone’s payroll or not.
When done effectively, the security rewards of self employment are not to be underestimated – in today’s market I strongly believe that holding down two or three good self-employed contracts provides vastly more stability than having one job in a company that could fold or effect a devastating ‘restructure’ resulting in your redundancy at any minute. What’s more, the false sense of security you may have built up during your time with a company can lead you to drop useful contacts that freelancers are in the habit of nurturing, and you may quickly find you’re on your own when it comes to finding further employment.
As a freelancer, I’ve generally found that losing one contract does generally feel more like the proverbial door opening as the last one closes – an opportunity rather than a disaster. But in my two experiences of redundancy my overriding feelings were somewhat more apocalyptic. Losing any work can be scary and feels like a leap into the dark, but the main challenge is to keep your contacts active and to be as helpful to others in their efforts to find work as possible – nobody forgets someone who helped them out at a time of need, and I’ve found the freelance community in my line of work to be an excellent support network.
5. We earn a fortune and don’t tell the taxman about all of it
Despite all of the above assumed laziness, we’re also somehow supposed to be raking in more than our traditionally employed friends and not telling anyone about it. This is a particularly hard one to swallow for anyone who’s ever had to deal with a long period of ‘famine’ or who has taken the brave step of kickstarting a self-employed career without a huge network of helpful contacts. I’ve also seen this one used to justify a lax attitude toward payment of freelancers on time by stingy clients who should (and do) know better.
But let’s explore the grain of truth in this monstrous misapprehension: in my experience, I have generally earned more as a freelancer than as an employee. However, the difference is modest – and relative to the things I don’t get: paid holiday, maternity leave, sick days and so on – not to mention living with the possibility that any or all of my contracts could in theory disappear overnight. But in a world where companies are stripping back on employee benefits, these differences can be less pronounced than they first appear. And as for the tax-dodging claims, I’ve never met anyone in my industry who worked cash-in-hand, didn’t declare their income or cheated on their tax return.
I will admit that I’ve raised an eyebrow at a few tenuous items that some freelance colleagues have “offset” on their end-of-year expenses, but I’ve also worked in an investment bank where stories of expense abuse really put these in perspective. Who’s more likely to be investigated for such activity? The freelancer, of course!
What freelance myths have you come up against recently? Do you think the changing employment landscape is altering outsider perceptions of us?
Abi Silvester is a freelance writer and community manager whose clients have included Nike, Endemol, Associated Northcliffe Digital and Aigua Media. She can also be found on Twitter @absinthecity.