Freelance Nation

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I recently got to thinking about freelancing, why I and others do it, and what it means for cities like Detroit. An article on Business Week’s website titled, Beware the Freelance Economy, discusses a recent trend in this country in which the share of business with no employees (freelance) has increased relative to traditional employee businesses. The author contends that freelance businesses do not increase employment, nor create wealth. Furthermore the author believes that, “…people would be more productive in this part-time work if they did it as employees who were part of a bigger organization that could achieve scale economies…” He finishes up with a bit of a warning, and a general question as to why this trend is occurring.

Having been a full time freelancer, or self-employed individual as I liked to call it, for almost five years, and now a part time freelancer, I feel like responding to some of the points made in the article. I also think I have a pretty good answer for why this trend, that the author finds so troubling, is occurring. Being a fairly typical Gen Xer, I saw the Boomer Generation as missing out on so many important parts of life. I lacked direction, and questioned everything. The answer, “because that’s life…” or whatever, didn’t quite cut it for me. I saw a lot of, unnecessary in my mind, stress, and anger in the generation ahead of me as they strove for middle and upper management positions at large corporations that ultimately failed to offer the promised stability or loyalty that their employees seemed to give them.

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This appeared to be the American Dream. Work 60 plus hours at a company that saw you as disposable, so you could own a couple of cars and a house in the suburbs. Along with that came dedicating your life to a corporate entity that often became more important than family, hours waiting in rush hour traffic, and generally mind numbing and unrewarding work. Like so many others though, as much as I despised the large corporate workplace, I found the need to make a decent living, have health insurance, and a desire to save some money for later in life. Working in bike shops, and the like wasn’t cutting it. After college graduation I bounced between “real” jobs like accounting, and fun jobs like working in bike shops. The real jobs left me feeling unfulfilled. I worked hard at them, and was often recognized by my employers as a top employee, yet they did little for my soul. Working in the bike shop, on the other hand, allowed me to introduce people to an activity that could become a meaningful part of their lives. Often times the relationship between customers and employees turned into long term friendships in ways they rarely did in my “real” jobs.

During the almost five years of self-employment, I experienced unprecedented self motivation, and dedication to my work. Ownership, it turned out, was very important to me, as was actually being interested in what I did all day…every day. Furthermore the feeling of control, and the escape of the high school mentality of my “real” jobs, where employers cared more about when I came and went and less about what I actually accomplished, was rather nice. Self employment comes with it’s own set of headaches, but what job or career doesn’t?

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Now, almost everyone I know is self-employed or a part time freelancer. We all do multiple things with our lives. Dedication to the big corporation isn’t as appealing, doesn’t seem to offer what it used to, and certainly isn’t the end all, be all of most people’s lives. Personal growth and satisfaction seem to be as important as money these days. And while a part time job at Starbucks may (this is arguable) contribute more to wealth and job creation than freelancing, it may not contribute more to self-fulfillment and personal growth. While the author, Scott Shane, may be a professor of entrepreneurial studies, most freelancers couldn’t care less about the National implications of their side businesses. They do it because they want to. They do it because they need to. And this is as it should be. As a country we should embrace this. If someone feels motivated enough to do work on the side, it should be encouraged. My freelancing earns me more money to me than a second job would, and employs me just as much. The additional money earned is put back into the economy when I go out to eat, go on vacation, or by a new bicycle. It’s money that wouldn’t have been spent with out the side work. And more importantly it’s fed my need for personally satisfying work, and has led to other career opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

Finally, what does freelancing mean to cities like Detroit? And why should cities like Detroit embrace freelancing and self-employment? While most freelance work may never lead directly to larger, job producing companies, some will. Connections will be made, networks will grow, and the area can benefit directly from them. Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city that has, for many years, attracted freelancers, and many companies have been started by the self-employed joining together. Detroit currently has a low cost of living, allowing for freelancers to keep a low overhead while building their business. Most will never amount to more than that, but even if a few do, it will contribute to health of the economy and the reputation of the area. A good reputation for entrepreneurship, self-employment, and creativity will attract more of the same. The alternative is always relying on someone else to provide for employment opportunities. And as it stands right now, nobody seems to be stepping in to fill that need.

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