The problem with the growing freelance economy

Reason Magazine is highlighting a report from the Freelancer’s Union indicating that a full third of Americans are currently engaged in freelance work, and most of those are doing it as their main source of income.

A new report shows some 53 million Americans—or 34 percent of the U.S. workforce—are now working as freelancers in some capacity. “This is more than an economic change,” asserts the report, a joint effort from the Freelancer’s Union and freelance markeplaces oDesk and eLance. It’s also “a cultural and social shift” that will “have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power.”

Obviously, statistics on freelancing will be colored by how the definitions are set, but it seems fairly clear that an increasing number of Americans are working in non-traditional, project-to-project roles.

Libertarians, of course, tend to get excited about this trend, seeing it as a pure form of free interactive capitalism in line with the much-ballyhooed “sharing economy.”

However, as a proud freelancer myself for over a decade (I fall into the “freelance business owner” category), I can attest that it’s not really a workable model for society. As with all things in unregulated libertarian capitalism, opportunity potential is high but the downside risk is enormous. It’s often difficult to make long-term plans since you aren’t sure if the freelance work is going to keep coming–and the nature of freelance work itself means that it’s hard to even plan a weekend getaway, much less a vacation, because if there’s a project required to happen at a certain time you can’t pass up the opportunity to take it on.

Beyond that, however, not everyone has the personality to deal with the level of uncertainty involved in freelancing. Most people like to know what they can count on, and don’t want to be forced to constantly be doing business development and singing for their supper every night. Also, a freelance economy reduces the necessary commitment of employers to their employees, whom they can increasingly treat as contractors to be discarded at the earliest convenience.

Elizabeth Brown at Reason is probably right that the new employment models are here to stay and we can’t go back. But what follows from that premise is that where corporate America can or will no longer provide the required amount of certainty in people’s lives, it falls to government and society to make up the difference through increased safety nets, guarantees and even basic income programs.

Simply letting the economy slide into the enforced uncertainty of the freelance economy without helping workers achieve dignity and stability is not an acceptable outcome.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.