Freelance vs. employment – is it worth it?

Sometimes my salary is quite good, some months almost non-existent – literally! My children – who are adult and work – often ask me, “dad why do you do this – the stress of uncertainty, the never-knowing?” Sometimes I have wondered myself. I have had occasions where I have been required to go cap in hand to a close family member and ask for help because I was literally about to miss a mortgage payment. Perhaps you would think that after the length of time I have been freelancing – 7 years and counting – that type of thing would have happened too often to make me want to continue. Not really.

Let’s analyse. Why does any of us freelance? For me it was a combination of a means to an end (having lost my job), a necessity, and a choice I made that was driven by both the need and the knock-on of not being able to secure a job. I did keep banging on recruiters’ doors but ironically the longer it got me nowhere, the more I thought I don’t need this, there must be an alternative. So, I pondered. Amongst other things it dawned on me that what I disliked about being employed included annual reviews, KPIs, a uniform, a fixed schedule and the lack of option about what to choose to work on. To me, from a position of increasing despondency, the negative way I felt about that package outweighed the fear or anxiety caused by the thought of a potential lack of salary.

At this point let me both lay my cards on the table and clarify for those who may still be holding the pack: I mixed up freelancing with entrepreneurship. In my head, I thought they were the same: I can work at this and, as I earn the money, I am setting up and developing my own business. They key missing component of course was that, at least in my case, I wasn’t setting up on my own, I was working on a contract basis for others who supplied the work.

That in itself gave me an interesting perspective – the understanding that there are fundamental differences but also significant areas of overlap. There are elements that apply to both: need to seek the contract / work: tick; uncertainty about income stream: tick; a requirement to be open to different types or sources of work, albeit within broad self-set parameters: tick. But, having overcome the shock of realising that I wasn’t running a from-scratch business and therefore unlikely to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, I got on with it. It rapidly became a mix, almost by osmosis and certainly unplanned, of understanding the need to take both an immediate and long-term view. As an employee, my pension, somewhere in the HR department, was my long-term; in my new life, it was a constant worry prompted by the continuing immediate: what will land – or not – on my desk tomorrow.

I quickly and unexpectedly found myself – still do – seeking out possible work in ways that I never would have in a previous life. I find I read newspaper articles a great deal and extract elements that some may think random or odd but which, in my head, are possibilities – no matter how unlikely, they may lead somewhere. Recently I read an interview in The Times with Roy Moed (https://trulyexperiences.com/blog/2015/03/lifebook-story-behind-stories/). His idea had been to help his ailing father to have a daily purpose by recording his (father’s) life story as a book so his dad could look back. I thought it was a great idea and contacted Roy to see if he needed writers – he didn’t (though he was good enough to reply). But for me it was what some may have considered left field: you’re a CV writer, why would you think you could write for Roy? Because freelancing, by the very nature of its precariousness, forced me to think “out of the box” – and I find that a great place to be. I feel not at all constricted, as I would if I had a manager.

It led me to think, over time: is freelancing for everyone? The obvious answer would appear to be: of course, not, and I agree. There have been times when the stress has been such that I seriously considered running away – I don’t mean going to the other room, I mean quite literally running away, disappearing, becoming a statistic. To some of you that may sound dramatic or hyped but believe me it’s very true. But that in itself taught me something else about freelancing: it is vital to be prepared for the unexpected – I was caught very off guard and it frightened the hell out of me – but I learned both that I should have expected it but also, when the chips are down, there is always a way out. No, I’m not Superman, just realised that “I reckon I can do this, I know I’m not bad at what I do so let’s crack on”

Yes, I know, I sound like I’m writing a pulp novel but I’m being absolutely genuine: I developed a resilience to unplanned change, the ability to think, ok it’s happened, now what do I do? I’m not sure I would ever have learned that in an employment structure – because I would have had a support network. As a freelancer, it’s me against the market.

There was another facet that arose – see how many things you don’t see coming – exciting or terrifying? Your call – one of losing a sense of superiority. At first, my default position was that I was good, probably better than most. I quickly realised that was not the case. To be fair to me, that realisation didn’t come about as a result of a rebuttal. It was simply something I began to believe. Remember I mentioned out of the box? I was watching “Child Genius” on Channel 4: a quiz pitting frighteningly bright children against each other. What they came to realise was that in their own environment they were frighteningly bright but also that there was also someone who was that bit brighter: it was a wake-up call. I didn’t consciously use that – rather, the watching of it made me ponder my own place in the market: am I good? I hope so; do my clients (mostly – not all!) tell me I am? yes; but am I a realist – there are others who are better? absolutely.

By this stage, you’re probably thinking: I can’t work this guy out. Is he terrified or at ease; happy or banging his head; struggling or not. The answers are mainly the latter; the former; usually the former.

I used to earn more than the average salary and it was consistent. I now earn much less and with no guarantees. But, as previously alluded to, would I switch? Unless I find myself with no options left at all, not a chance. The positives outweigh the negatives.

In March 2016, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the number of self-employed in the UK has risen by 182,000 from January to March 2016 compared to the same period last year. This means there are now 4.69 million self-employed people in the UK, accounting for 15% of the workforce. Are they all happy? No. All miserable? No.

A recent survey from the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE) (https://www.ipse.co.uk/) found that over two thirds (68%) of UK freelancers are as or more confident in their business’ performance for the year ahead than they were last year, while other research revealed that freelancers contributed £109bn to the UK economy in 2015. Lorence Nye, IPSE economic advisor, commented: “The interesting thing is that the latest figures show full time self-employed people are the fastest growing group of workers in the nation. We know people who work for themselves report particularly high levels of job satisfaction and our research shows the vast majority have no intention of returning to traditional employment.”

I wholeheartedly concur. Oh and by the way, that link, which I discovered only whilst researching this article, made me think “you know what, another avenue for exploration: can it help me?”

If you’re employed, be happy; if you’re freelancing, be happy; if you’re swithering, take the plunge – nearly 5 million of us have. Good luck!

Nigel Benson (8 Posts)

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.


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