The Golden Freelance Life is a Lie
Atwater Kent radio set assembly, Philadelphia 1925
“ I am a writer assembly line”
This sentence, from Lorraine Berry’s article on how she tries to make a living, struck me. She is what your average freelancer would consider as having a successful freelance career, supporting herself entirely from her writing work. She hustles for clients daily, shoots out at the very least an article per day and is able to afford her very own lovely bungalow by the sea. But what looks gloriously liberating on paper hides in fact, a life that is not a life in the true sense of the word. You are no better, she seems to conclude, than an assembly line worker of the early 20th Century – you know the type, an underpaid, overworked cog in a mighty machine that barely registers their existence, let alone their worth.
The truth is, that even though the work of the creative freelancer is entirely necessary in a world that projectile vomits sub-par content for the sake of activity alone in order to appear on Google searches, they are also entirely dispensable, and so, of no value when measured on the scale of corporate needs. And the logic goes: if you are of no economic value, then you are in no need of worker protection rights.
This myth perfectly suits hiring companies of course, who are ready to perpetuate it in order to protect their own interests; namely, dwindling costs of la main d’oeuvre, zeroed liabilities to their employees, rights to all the intellectual property of commissioned work and higher profit margins. While writers and photographers sold their work for next to nothing in exchange for fame (read: exposure) to his publications and barely scraped by, William Randolph Hearst, head of the Hearst empire comprising Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Health, to mention less than a handful, loudly amassed a fortune worthy of a king.
You would think that such an injustice should be corrected with a mass revolt, but unfortunately freelancers find themselves ready to oblige. Like the poor intern, behind them there are hundreds of thousands of other freelancers ready to take their place, desperate to prove to themselves and to their parents that thousands of dollars spent on university degrees were damn well worth it. That they are de facto artists, and can soon proudly bear the grand title if only they can hustle long enough to store a good enough number of renowned brands, publications and production houses under their belt in order to appear legitimate. If the work is unpaid, or severely under paid, so be it – exposure is priceless. If it isn’t exposure, well something is better than nothing, and a girl’s got to eat. If the commissioned work doesn’t live up to internal standards of what you can truly produce if only you had the time and resources, well, amen, the time will eventually come. Freelancers are not in the habit of standing up for themselves, because they have been taught from the start that that is the system, the way it’s always been and shall be, and that, after all, isn’t there something profoundly noble in the hustle? In a society that glorifies the grind as the sole driver of success, being efficient and productive end up appearing like rewards in themselves. When it comes to creative work, justifications even achieve the shiny tinge of reverence, allowing creative freelancers to lay their anxieties about the future to rest on the untouchable and virtuous archetype of the starving artist.
When you start out as a freelancer, you realize that the only way to sustain yourself is through sheer content produced. Without a portfolio of independent work, clients have a perfect excuse not to pay for your work. The seeds of your indoctrination into a corrupt belief system, that stipulates that only certain types of people deserve pay for their work, begins. You realize shortly that, as a freelancer, you hold absolutely no workers rights whatsoever. You will take whatever pays and will be thankful that it does in fact pay anything at all. In exchange for such payment you will provide your client with all the intangible value that you amassed with years of study in expensive, specialized universities. Years of training in fine art reduced to a meager $10 per hour – and for a few hours at that, because you soon start to see that what matters above all are production targets and punctuality. Works of the highest standards are expected to be churned out in a small afternoon. Unfortunately, so focused you are on completing the work on time, that you never stop to think that only emphasizing speed and output measured in number of articles, photo shoots, or illustrations severely undervalues other, more fundamental attributes of an artwork – quality, depth, and significance to existing cultural literature, among many other intangibles that collectively aim to both elevate and express the nature of the human condition.
Narrowing your perception to only measure life with productivity metrics also slowly erodes your sense of worth, until you begin to believe the deceptive idea that you only exist insofar as you create. Creating sub-standard work due to time pressures or market needs for endless streams of content marketing also erodes the one thing an artist has, his integrity, pushing the dream of being self-actualized through your work further and further away. To top it all, a lack of steady funds coupled with regular investments into upgrades in order to always be on the cutting edge of contemporary aesthetic definitions and technological innovations means you are barely able to afford life’s basic luxuries that make routine bearable - going out to dinner with friends, trips to the salon or even paying for gym memberships. After a couple of years you become acutely aware that you are not, as you initially thought, paying your dues in order to make your way to a higher pay, or even towards a decent savings account, because with no regulation, your pay will always fluctuate like the price of stock on Wall Street, and is forever dependent on whether you can maintain a good network - and those are never a guarantee. People move, your rate can take a downturn for even the slightest shift in perceptions surrounding the value of art or flexible work in general, and every year brings in a steady supply of fresh freelancers such that the market is perpetually in oversupply, leaving all part-time workers to fight for scraps. Some platforms even directly pitch freelancers against each other, driving down prices for specialized jobs, such as designing websites or logos, to next to nothing. An omen of things to come perhaps: a 2017 report from Upwork found that the majority of the US job market will be comprised of freelancers by 2027.
What perpetuates this madness are a few things of course - nothing is ever the product of a singular causality - but one of the most predominant are the stories flooding the internet of freelancers who, did in fact make it, ‘freeing’ themselves from the shackles of corporate life, becoming their own bosses and living the good life, topping off the myth with proof in the form of click bait articles ready to tell you so, as well as success cases on social media with hundreds of thousands of followers. What these stories fail to reveal is that digital personas rarely reveal the truth, and that social media metrics equate to a poor man’s treasure – you may have stacks and stacks of it, but true quality of life it does not measure.
A closer look at the promise of single-handedly amassing wealth reveals numerous potholes, but a celebrity culture, Warhol’s 5 minutes of fame prophecy fulfilled, skews our collective outlooks to prize jobs with a higher propensity to produce fame above all others, not considering the fact that a society that rolls out countless new micro-celebrities every year de facto undervalues the worth of each individual one, and carries with it the risk of top positions being incredibly short lived. The wheels have already been set in motion, and the facts are alarming - while Chinese youth aspire to become astronauts, American kids want to be Youtube stars.
The stagnant remnants of an American Dream, born from an era of pioneers making their fortunes in a new promised land, hangs in the air. ‘Making it’, or living off of the art that you create, is the carrot, the freelancer, the donkey dragging a heavy plough over fields whose fruits solely benefit the merchant.
It just so happens that I have just finished reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a diary of sorts detailing the every day of the worker in the lowest rungs of 1930’s society, and the similarities are staggering. In it, Orwell describes, through personal experience, the lives of workers who toil in insufferable conditions with no rights, future prospects or way out, in order to supply shoddy imitations of luxury such that the rich could enjoy the satisfaction of paying large sums of money for relatively small conveniences. He gives the example of luxury hotels he was not allowed by his publishers to mention by name, who painted a lavish picture to clients who were charged ridiculous sums, all the while hiding an army of semi-slaves, the cheapest raw materials, and appalling, filthy practices worthy of a con man in order to spend the very least possible. The workers were all necessary of course, but suffered interminably for no justifiable reason just so that the owner could buy himself villas in wealthy, popular districts.
“ His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. At the moment there are men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10 or 15 hours a day. One cannot say that it is mere idleness on their part, for an idle man cannot be a plongeur; they have simply been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them. ”
The above excerpt is applicable to assembly line or factory workers of the time who produced products and services necessary for society, such as garment workers for fashion, auto construction workers for cars, and now, in contemporary society, freelancers for content, the most sought-after commodity. Truth be told, a lot of these specialty jobs have been taken up by robots where permitted, but what certain trends are revealing is that even in areas where humanity may seem indispensable, namely art, it is no different - we are already prepping AI to write movie scripts and sketch still life portraits.
I’ve come to the conclusion that creative freelancing in the utopian sense of the word is for the very rich, or at least ‘the maintained,’ for who could sustain years on end with barely enough to cover rent? The privilege of truly dedicating yourself to your art is for those who don’t have to work 18-hour days simply to cover basic necessities of living, and so can dedicate days to feeding their minds with art, history and culture, and their weekends for much needed, biologically fundamental repose. When the freelancer ideal is cast aside, what remains is the struggle of the working class – the image and titles may differ, but the fundamentals are quite the same.