Freelancer or employee?

I said to my mum the other day how ridiculous I felt being nearly 41 and still deciding what to do with my life. But I realise now that deciding what to do is not the issue – I already do lots of things, and there’s no big debate about whether I do them or not. If I find it interesting, it gets done. I am who I am, so deciding what I want to be (when I grow up?) isn’t it either. And while I’m noodling around navel-gazing, life is carrying on regardless!

The issue, rather, is how to make a steady income. This I am still deciding, and I’ve not yet come to any conclusions. I seem to be good at having ideas for projects and services, keeping busy. Bad at actually making money. It boils down to freelancing versus employment, which for me means freedom versus security.

A WORK HISTORY

I got my first job when I was 15. (Saturday afternoons on the Woolworth’s record counter. My uniform was awful: a shapeless navy pinafore and a blue and white stripey shirt. We had our bags searched at the end of every shift to make sure we hadn’t nicked anything; one time I’d bought a pad of paper from a rival shop and they looked at me strangely. But it did begin my education in music retail, which continued with the Best Job Ever as Saturday girl in Andy’s Records. I was officially cool.) I loved having a job, the independence I felt, the boost to my self-confidence, a different social world to my peers at school.

I had jobs throughout my time as a student, usually temporary office work in the summer, and didn’t stop being an employee until I was 27, got made redundant, and decided that this having-a-job malarkey was rubbish! I wanted to earn a living, like a fisherman, not be a wage slave dancing to someone else’s rhythm, working for The Man. I was young and ballsy, with no doubt I could make it on my own.

Was I part of a trend? By the early 2000s, secure lifelong jobs were already disappearing and portfolio careers were the thing, especially for creative types. Work came in short-term projects, a bit of this and a bit of that. When work is plentiful, the freelancer enjoys flexibility and variety. When I first became freelance in 2005, I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t work like this! I depended on no-one but myself, all the effort I put in was for my benefit, and I chose my own hours and didn’t have to commute! I was so motivated, making contacts, designing my own stationery, creating a professional image.

Then the 2008 economic downturn happened and freelance work got scarcer, while at the same time unemployment went up, so competition got tougher. Then in 2010, my personal life fell apart and I couldn’t have given much of a damn about work. Which is difficult when the amount you get depends on the effort you put in to finding it. Luckily, by then I had some solid, loyal clients, so I still had plenty to keep me going and projects to put all my energies into. The business didn’t really thrive, though.

But still, freelancing was the way for me. When I moved to Barcelona, I worked on a contract for less than six months before I went freelance. I wasn’t scared: I knew how to do this. But freelancing in Spain as an English teacher is a different kettle of fish. As an ‘autónomo’ worker you must pay a monthly amount for social security, regardless of what you’ve earned, and after the first 18 months of discounts it’s no meagre sum. Coupled with this, I have found teaching English in workplaces (better pay, more sociable hours than a language school) is bitty and unstable.

In recent years we’ve heard a lot about ‘zero hours contracts’ and people becoming self-employed without much other choice and not necessarily enjoying the autonomy it suggests (I’m thinking Amazon delivery people, Uber drivers…TEFL teachers?!). Jobs with no rights, guarantees nor benefits that previously would have been contracted. So in terms of stability, it’s a black mark for freelancing.

Yet I still champion the freelance lifestyle! It’s hard work creating your own job, but it’s ultimately more satisfying. So I got CREC (my coworking) involved with last year’s European Freelancers’ Week, and I discovered too that there are specialist professional support organisations for freelance workers. So if I continue with this way of working, then I’d like to become some kind of rep for autónomos, bringing people together for support and experience-sharing.

WHAT DOES WORK MEAN?

Why do we work? Yes, we all have to make ends meet, but there’s more to it than that; for most of us it’s not about tending the crops or getting water from the well. Work also gives us purpose, meaning, social status and belonging. At its root, it’s something to do! Imagine you didn’t have to work for the income (maybe you’re lucky enough to already be in this position!) – what would you do? I probably wouldn’t have a job, but I’d still work.

I wonder what the future of work is. We have an ever-growing global population, people need stuff to do and income inequality is a characteristic of our age, but automation and AI are already replacing jobs and it’s only going to continue, from truckers to radiologists. On my recent visit to the UK, the bank of self-checkouts in Boots gave me a jolt. Apart from Ikea, I’ve not seen any here in Barcelona and had forgotten that they are the norm now.

For hundreds of years, work didn’t really change. Before the Industrial Revolution, people lived in small self-sufficient communities and were usually farmers or craftspeople. You didn’t have a job, as such, but did what you were good at, probably what you’d been born into. Then in the mid-19th century, work as we now know it began, and we’ve been worrying about it ever since.

And the future of work for me? Well, right now I want a stable income and not to have to continually sell myself. So I’m looking for a job. But also! I want to go back to editorial work, and I’ve an idea for a niche service. So for now I’ll keep spinning, not sure which way to go, and maybe one day I’ll come to a stop and focus on one particular direction.

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