On this day, designed to be a celebration of the contribution of freelancers to the UK economy, I’d like to share my own perspective of the life of a freelancer. As is my wont, I am going to be blunt.
There are enough commentators out there who laud the freelance life for its flexibility, its creative purpose, and the supposed ‘well being’ arising from its adoption. These commentators are either blind or lying.
There is nothing even remotely flexible, creative or supportive of well being in being a freelancer. I know. I am one. Let me go through the reasons why this is the case.
You certainly can choose your hours as a freelancer. However if you choose less than an average 70 hours per week you will not earn enough to cover basic cost of living. While the average freelancer wage is £41,570, the lower end of freelancer income is £28362. For the average wage freelancer, that means an after tax income of £27532 (40% tax) and for the lower end wage freelancer, that’s an after tax income of £23985 (20% tax). Given average rental costs of £1427/month (£17124/annum), council rates, utility bills and basic food costs of £4000/annum, the basic cost of living totals £21124. So the average freelancer has just £6000 per year to spend on clothing and other costs, while the lower end freelancer has just £2700. That’s without any consideration of holidays, gifts, or contributions to pensions and savings funds.
So if you want to have enough cash to invest in anything other than basic costs, as a freelancer you’re going to have to push for at least an average freelancer wage.
How does this impact on flexibility? Freelancers on an average wage repeatedly report working between 60-70 hours per week, of which about 40 hours maximum are ‘billable hours’. Keeping in mind that freelancers don’t get paid for sick leave, annual leave or public holidays, this means that the so-called flexibility of the freelancer is non-existent.
As a freelancer you can choose what you do. You can be as creative as you like. Well. So long as you are pleasing enough to your client base to get that basic average wage I mention above. Actually your creativity is probably more vested in shaping your own role in working with clients. You still have to work in accordance with the principles, values and laws your clients set, and you need to be conscious that radical innovations which may seem to make sense in delivering business process improvements or better alternative benefits to your clients could clash abominably with client cultures or management strategy.
As such, your creativity is in fact, quite limited. You certainly have scope to think outside the processes operating within your clients’ firms. However you may not be appealing as a freelance consultant on a long term basis if your strategies for change are not at least respectful of those processes.
In general, if you are notoriously disruptive as a freelance consultant, you will spend more time in business development per week, because you will be more likely to work only on single projects with any individual firm and not on long term engagements. As such, your billable hours are reduced, and your unpaid business development load increases. So your creativity as a freelancer is roughly inversely proportionate to your earnings capacity.
As a direct result of limited creativity and high working hours, the well being of freelancers when compared with workers in salaried positions is likely to be poor. Beyond the ongoing stress of maintaining business contract load and chasing payment of invoices, there is among freelancers, a tendency to ‘lose oneself’ in work, and to reduce hours devoted to family and recreational pursuits. Or, if family life intrudes, there can be the sense of failing in one’s professional life, because one cannot devote enough time to freelance client work or business development. In either category, the itinerant nature of the freelance life is rather an impediment than an aid to well being.
I have written this post, partly because I am irritated by the fantasies perpetrated by advocates of well being and the freelancer lifestyle, and partly because I wanted to acknowledge freely that I like being a freelancer. But I don’t like being a freelancer because it is flexible, creative or promotes well being. I like it because it is hard. I like it because it’s a challenge. And I like it because I’m good at it.
Don’t be fooled by those who have more to hide about their experiences of the freelancing life than to share. A freelancer’s life is inherently extremely difficult, and only those tough enough survive it.