Freelancing, a Return to Normal
Freelancers have become an essential part of the American workforce making up %35 of workers in the US. While this seems like a big shift, and it is a big shift, it really isn’t as startling or radical of a transformation as many think. All one has to do is look at the history of work, and our current move to freelancing will seem a lot less exciting. Working freelance for others, or working for yourself, is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) working paradigms in civilization. In fact, the Fordist trend of centralized work where everyone works in one place, for one person, for their whole life has been a short blip in our working history. Before the industrial revolution the vast majority of people worked for themselves. Now that statistic is coming back. So really, if you think about it, freelancing isn’t a certain type of worker or industry. It’s a return to the way we all used to work, and will again.
OUR FREELANCING PAST
For millennia, humans have worked for the sweat of their own brow. The only job that reflected the centralized careers we have today was that of the soldier. The military industry, all the way back to the Spartans, was the only widespread centralized working paradigm before the industrial revolution. It required people to work physically near each other, it required a clear hierarchical structure to function, with people having very defined positions, and it required people to work in uniformity. Unsurprisingly, the first freelancers were also soldiers. Medieval mercenaries who sold their services to whichever king or lord paid the highest. They were literally “free-lancers.” There would have been no reason for the word freelance, or some other word like it, to be used outside of the military because all work outside of the military was “freelance.” That’s what most people did. They independently farmed, or sold wears, or raised horses, or owned inns. They didn’t have bosses, only clients. While the word freelance is used today to refer to someone out of the ordinary, it soon, like it has previously, will have no reason to exist. It will simply refer to everyone.
THE CENTRALIZED WORKING MODEL
The military greatly influenced Henry Ford’s new concept of work. After all, that’s what he needed; lots of workers to act in tandem as to complement his machines. They were small pieces of a greater whole, cogs in the machine, literally. Each cog had a very defined role and the potential to move up the ranks, as a bigger cog. Complementing those machines meant conforming to their uniformity. With Ford’s automation and the many other innovations that came with the industrial revolution, also came a consistent increase in the standards of living for the general population. This was perhaps the biggest impact of the industrial revolution on the average worker. The promise of transcending one’s class, or gaining a certain level of wealth, was something previously seen as impossible.
Yet, this increase didn’t affect the average worker in a meaningful way until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the industrial revolution began, workers had taken to the streets to demand fair and livable wages, safe working conditions, reasonable hours, the ability to unionize, and other rights we take for granted today. But despite these achievements, much of the centralized model of work was spent in battle between workers and employers, with workers often coming up empty handed. After years of reducing union power, a shrinking middle class, manufacturing going overseas, and serious economic turbulence (culminating in 2008), that original promise of a higher standard of living has become a lie. If working one’s way up the ranks as a cog for decades is no longer a stable way to make a living, why not go freelance?
A FREELANCE FUTURE
As the promises of centralized work crack under pressure, more and more people turn to freelancing. But new freelancers are no longer full-timers who’ve been laid off. More and more people are finding and choosing the freelance life for themselves.. Part of the reason is that we are finally seeing the vast technological innovations we’ve made over the last few decades bear fruit. Remote work has not only become easier and more convenient, but the pandemic has forced everyone in that direction whether they liked it or not. Equally as important, the rise of remote education. It used to be that your career needed to stop in its tracks in order to go back to school. For most people it just wasn’t worth it. Now that education has proliferated online, improving your skills is easier (and cheaper) than ever. The ability to both work and learn wherever whenever allows all of us to have far more fluid careers. People could have begun freelancing anytime, but previously there was a lack of both the technology and the market. It was difficult to maintain the standard of living you wanted. This is no longer the case.
While the industrialized model had its place, we are seeing now that it was counterintuitive to many of our natural habits and patterns. We don’t want to be cogs in a machine, we want to masters of our own destiny. Yet, during the 19th & 20th centuries, no one was looking back fondly at a pre-industrial time. That’s because of the poor standard of living people had. Today’s shift to freelancing is different. It is no longer a choice between passion and money. Now we can have our cake and eat it too. So whatever job you’re doing, freelance or not, know that we’re all moving in the same direction.