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Freelance Life: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Gig Economy

In theory, freelance life seems pretty damn great.

After all, it means the ability to flip open your laptop and work poolside from anywhere in the world, a morning “commute” that involves a trek from your bed to your home workspace, unlimited vacation days, and zero bosses.

And, for the most part, it is great.

Your daily life is so much less stressful once a jam-packed subway ride, chatty coworkers, micromanaging bosses, long lunch lines, and a cold, dark journey home are removed from the equation. Aside from the freedom and flexibility, another great aspect about the freelance world – especially as a writer – is the diversity of work it allows for. Each publication I write for is varied in audience and requires a different tone and voice. Not to mention, if you’re lucky enough to have the option, you can make yourself as busy as you’d like to be (a definite bonus on those easy, breezy summer days).

As a freelancer, you also save money on makeup (when you work from home in your sweats, there’s no need for it) and “work clothes,” can grocery shop without the hassle of long checkout lines, never have to wait for equipment at the gym, and can identify when you feel most productive and capable of your best work (i.e. at midnight, as opposed to within the 9-5 confines). The flexibility in when you choose to work – and how many breaks you choose to take – is helpful for those prone to work-related anxiety or bouts of writer’s block (or the equivalent in accounting, graphic design, or video editing).

The freelance life is not without its painfully brutal challenges, however – and there are many (some less expected than others). Aside from a newfound annoyance with your email inbox (you don’t make dollars in precious time spent on emails, don’t forget), and the occasional wave of isolation-born loneliness, the biggest – and the most unfortunate – reality check when it comes to freelance life is the fact that many clients won’t pay you on time and you’ll subsequently waste hours chasing overdue invoices. Fellow freelance friends of mine who have also learned this lesson the hard way now impose interest charges on overdue invoices, or request a deposit before they’ve clocked a minute of their time on the gig.

Some clients will even take the liberty to ask you for the invoice immediately upon completion of the project so that they can “make sure you get paid quickly,” only to fast-forward four months to you sending yet another follow-up email in your alter-ego role of a bill collector, inquiring about where your money is. Some will tell you that they are waiting on incoming invoices themselves and therefore you’ll have to wait past the agreed upon paid date, as if it was your problem. What they don’t understand or care about – or perhaps it doesn’t even cross their mind – is that an overdue $1000 invoice can really screw up a freelancer’s monthly budgeting, which is already a challenge in the early days. The irony is not lost in the fact that many of these clients are pavement pounding small business owners themselves who know very well how real the struggle can be.

It’s not shocking that it’s difficult to budget as a freelancer – even if your clients do pay on time. For example, if a girls’ trip that cuts no corners in the cost department is proposed on your group What’s App chat, there’s a sting of anxiety in not knowing if you’ll be able to swing it by the time the months-away proposed trip dates come around. Even if you’ve had a killer few months and things are looking pretty breezy in the financial department as of late (meaning, you’re no longer worried that you’ll cover all of your bills like you were in the early days), there is the constant stress that you’ll have a few ridiculously slow months that will offset that.

For those who have grown accustomed to salaries and the full-time world, consider that freelancers don’t get paid for accounting, invoicing, marketing your services, research, pitching, negotiating with clients, and chasing people for invoices. For that reason, I try to focus on making a certain minimum each day – whether that day lasts three hours, or it lasts ten.

A major negative to the freelance world is the whole lack of benefits aspect – something that can take a major toll on the wallet in the event of unexpected dental work, need for therapy, or blurred vision that can no longer be ignored.

Another tough reality to face is the lack of distinction between home life and work life. While your significant other may appreciate the fact that you can beat the northbound traffic and leave at noon on Friday for the cottage, they may not be as thrilled when you have to clock in a few hours a day on your phone or laptop when on vacation. An annoying aspect to the freelance lifestyle is the belief among certain friends and family members is that, because you don’t have a “real job,” you can visit their newborn baby across town at any point during the workday, take long boozy brunches with the “ladies who lunch” set, or have a catch-up on the phone at 1 pm on a Tuesday.

On a more serious note – especially in our #MeToo climate – being a freelancer means you lack the protection of a HR department. A brand-new survey from HoneyBook – a business management platform – polled just over 1000 females to reveal that 54 per cent of freelancers working in creative fields have experienced sexual harassment on the job, a figure noticeably higher than those with full-time jobs. Equally as disturbing, a paper by McMaster University, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario and The United Way called The Precarious Penalty reports that the lack of stability that riddles the precarious work economy can have incredibly negative consequences on the physical and mental health of freelance workers and their families. It states that our current culture makes it extremely difficult to build stable and secure lives.

We’re now seeing a growing number of companies outsourcing work to freelancers as opposed to hiring in-house, and 45 per cent of Canadians will be self-employed by 2020. In Toronto, recent months have seen the surfacing of two instantly popular co-working spaces, Love Child and Spaces. As we move further into a gig-based economy, the hope is that we will see accompanying changes designed to make the lives of freelancers more manageable.The Precarious Penalty recommends that governments take action to produce “comprehensive, coordinated and integrated workforce-development strategies” that are sector-specific to address the unique needs of precarious workers, and to update update basic protections and existing labour-market regulations.They also call for federal funding for Statistics Canada to collect better quality labour market data, and for the government to offer training for the precarious workforce that connects with real employment opportunities.

Hopefully in time, the “bad” and “ugly” of the freelance world will dwindle as we embrace the fact that this new, vibrant sector of the workforce is here to stay.

Alex Richmond

Alex Richmond is a social media and contributing writer at Notable Life.