Is Freelancing a Choice? It Shouldn’t Matter

If you’re one of Europe’s nine million freelancers, May Day isn’t a celebration of anything at all. While traditional employees mark International Workers’ Day, freelancers like us will remain glued to our laptops finishing jobs for clients who aren’t obliged to give us a paid day off.

There are some who believe freelancers don’t deserve any sympathy for this situation. After all, don’t freelancers choose to work for themselves? Aren’t they paid a premium hourly rate that should compensate for a lack of benefits like holidays, health insurance, and pension contributions?

While it’s true that some freelancers dance into their independent careers, there are also many of us who stumble from one project to the next. And while a few high-end consultants can add zeroes to their day rates, a lot of us have bare bank accounts and feel a bit queasy when we hear the word “retirement”.

We put on a smile when asked if we like working for ourselves, because it’s true that we’re happy to have escaped the drudgery of office hierarchy. But it seems that to admit enjoyment of personal liberty disallows us mentioning any of the downsides.

Those of us who let the smile slip and mumble about freelancers’ struggles are liable to be told to “go and get a job”. But that retort shows an ignorance of today’s employment market, in which many jobs freelancers might be able to do don’t exist. They’re either occupied, or outsourced to freelancers.

The “go and get a job” argument fails to acknowledge the causes of the freelancing boom, which is fuelled just as much by corporate pressure to outsource, and neoliberal reforms to individualise employment, as it is by a personal desire for freedom.

Such arguments are also a way to avoid a big and scary conversations about the looming social problems created by the growth of independent work, combined with a shrinking state. It places the blame and responsibility solely on the shoulders of individuals, rather than questioning the reliability of social structures that haven’t kept pace with ideological and technological change. Wait until automation sweeps through high-end professions, and we’ll see who is still sniping “go and get a job.”

Is it a choice? It shouldn’t matter

This notion of choice haunts all discussions of freelance working conditions.

Trade unionists think freelancers have no choice at all – we’re either kidding ourselves, or we’re forced into freelancing by sneaky bosses. In either case, they want us all corralled back into the factories.

High-end contractors think we are all doing just fine and need no support, certainly not from governments, which will only impose restrictions on our activities. Better to struggle without help than risk regulation, they tut from their comfortable positions.

But both arguments ring hollow for most freelancers. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. We’ve got some personal agency, but we’re also affected by the corporate, political and technological maneuvers of recent decades. Some elements of freelancing are great, and at other times we need a safety net.

Whether freelancers choose their situation shouldn’t matter. Rather than focusing on choice, let’s re-imagine our social and employment structures to reflect the realities of today’s workforce.

Let’s provide support to those who need and want it, regardless of whether they’re traditional workers or freelancers.

Let’s get rid of obstructionist bureaucracy that places burdens on freelancers. After all, if someone chooses freelancing, bureaucracy shouldn’t get in their way, and if they don’t choose it, then such obstruction is just making life more difficult for someone with enough problems already.

As for us freelancers, let’s join together to demand policy changes where needed, and create our own solutions when possible.

Let’s join campaigns like the European Freelancers’ Movement, which is pushing a set of five simple demands on politicians in Brussels. Let’s join associations and organizations attempting to create a collective front, like the VGSD in Germany and the PCG in the UK.

Let’s start small cooperatives to give each other support and find work. Let’s build new mutual societies to provide a safety net in down times, and collective services where governments fail us.

And as for public holidays like May Day, well, let’s give ourselves the day off.