Freelancing is not an aspirational, flat white-fuelled dream. The reality is much harder

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It is tough out there. From the media, to the arts, to the high street – jobs are being shed across every major industry. Every time I see a wave of lay-offs in mine, I think, well, it’s about to get a lot more competitive.

The sea of the self-employed is teeming with the able, talented and hungry, not to mention the thousands who finish their education every year. The more desperate people are for work, the less money we demand. And so the cycle of life continues.

Redundancies and lay-offs aside, the lure towards being your own boss is strong. Freelancing, especially in a lot of creative fields, has almost become a sort of cult. It’s now “cool” in a way that it never was before WeWork or flat white café culture. Choose your own hours, take Fridays off, negotiate the highest pay or walk away. It sounds like a dream. Who wouldn’t want that?

Freedom, yes, there is that to a certain extent. Bad bosses become distant figures that you only have to deal with occasionally. Multiple sources of income means you can diversify and become more resilient. I’ve learned a mix bag of lessons personally too, from procrastination to time management.

But there are many things I don’t have. Corporate benefits. Sick pay. The cycle to work scheme. Friday nights at the pub on someone’s credit card. And if I choose to try to have a family, no corporate maternity package. No pay rise, no promotion, no formal or informal review. I am my own HR, payroll, tax accountant, brand manager and contract negotiator, all separate to doing the actual work I am paid to do. It can be difficult to save money, as you never know what is coming in.

Being self-employed is like the Wild West in terms of government support and regulation. There is little recourse for being paid late or not being paid at all. (I am still waiting to be paid for a piece I wrote last August for one client.) There is no auto-enrolment or equivalent pension scheme for freelancers. And when the virus hit, the self-employed had to wait until June for their first government payment, while those in jobs were furloughed starting in February. Even getting the blue tick on Twitter seems to be harder if you don’t have the name of an employer behind you.

Don’t get me wrong – I have become extremely picky and don’t much fancy going back to a 9 to 5 in the office. I was supposed to try out freelancing for a few months and now it’s been three and a half years. But the increasing perception of freelance life as some kind of aspirational lifestyle choice is wrong.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that pay fell in real terms by 1.3 per cent in May and there was a record decrease in the number of job vacancies in April and May, the lowest since 2001. There are many people who want job security, who want to receive corporate pension contributions and know when their next paycheck is landing in their account. And they may not get that for a while.

Being your own boss turns from novelty to reality. WeWork came crashing down, and the CEO who inspired #GirlBoss filed for bankruptcy. Rishi Sunak has already said he will likely raise our national insurance contributions. A flat white can cost you up to £3.50. The “dream” is starting to look less appealing.

For all those now entering the self-employed Wild West, let’s recognise the real economic hardship that is ahead for many of them, instead of spinning it into some kind of fantasy playground. That may have been the case around 2014, the era of Sheryl Sandberg and #GirlBoss. It’s a whole different picture in 2020.

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