by Katy Tynan
A few weeks ago at a holiday get-together I was catching up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. We got to talking about when we all had to report back to the office – back to the grind, the boss, the desk. When I said that I didn’t have to, my friends responded with instant sympathy. “You’re out of work? We didn’t know…”
Then I had to explain (again) that I’m not out of work.
I just don’t have a “job.”
Working for yourself has a lot of upsides. You can make your own schedule and have much more control over the work you do. There’s no boss, and there are no arbitrary policies or mandatory company meetings. It’s an opportunity to have a life rather than making a living.
But there are downsides too, and surprisingly one of the most frustrating comes down to simple terminology.
If I say I’m a freelancer, people think I’m between jobs, trying to make ends meet. Or that I have a wealthy working spouse and choose to dabble rather than do “real” work. The idea of choosing to work independently, for myself, by myself, full-time, with no intention of having a traditional job is simply not something that most people expect.
Yet there are millions of people doing just that. Freelancer’s Union and oDesk partnered up last year to conduct a survey on Americans who work outside of the traditional employment marketplace. The results showed that 53 million people work independently, or one third of the total US workforce.
If one in three of us are working this way, why does it still feel like a non-traditional career path? Why do people assume that working independently is a temporary necessity rather than by choice? Part of the answer lies in semantics. According to a recent survey by MBO Partners, only 4% percent of people who work independently call themselves “freelancers,” perhaps because the term has come to imply something you do when you are between other opportunities.
But the alternatives are just as fraught. Call yourself a “consultant” and people will assume your services cost the earth. I’ve heard more than once that a consultant is a high priced expert who will borrow your watch to tell you the time, and then charge you the price of three Rolexes for the information.
So if I don’t call myself a freelancer or a consultant, what are my other options? The government offers several terms but they are even less useful.
My chosen profession is labeled “self-employment” by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Beyond using different labels, they also use a different method of calculating who’s in and who’s out. The IRS counts every person who earns any amount of income via a 1099 as self-employed. The BLS, on the other hand, counts only those who report that their primary source of household income is through self-employment. Then they divide that group into the incorporated and unincorporated which dilutes the numbers even further.
Confused yet? We haven’t even gotten to the US Census and their term, “non-employer,” which is also counted differently and includes different categories of workers. But all the counting boils down to this. Somewhere between 15% and 30% of the US labor force consists of individuals and tiny companies. And all those people have the same problem when trying to describe what they do – there is no short answer.
It might seem trivial, this question of what to call a group of people who have little in common except the fact that they make money in the absence of an employer. But this group, no matter which method is used to count them, is a sizeable percentage of the US labor force and it’s growing. Between 20 and 50 million people work for themselves, a cohort that seems to merit at least a positive descriptor.
In 2001, Daniel Pink wrote Free Agent Nation, a book that was 10 years ahead of its time. In it he predicted the rise – prior to social media, inexpensive broadband, and free video conferencing tools – of a nation of people working independently. While it took over a decade for his vision to become reality, it’s the reality we now live in. As a positive term to describe what I and many others are now doing for work, I usually opt for Daniel Pink’s term: Free Agent.
Michael Katz, a marketing consultant to individuals working independently, uses the title Solo Professional to describe his audience. Professional, because most of us are working in professional fields, and solo because it correctly describes the goal of working independently rather than trying to build a larger organization.
When I wrote my book on the trend of people working for themselves, I had to choose a title that I felt reflected that positive sense of working flexibly, independently, and most importantly, for myself. I spent an enormous amount of time on the phone with my editor trying to make the case that every word to describe this group was loaded with baggage and would likely exclude a substantial portion of our intended audience.
In the end, in homage to Pink, I chose Free Agent.
But the truth is, a job title descriptor that focuses on working independently is still the wrong answer. It invites more challenging questions because it fails to satisfy the asker. In an attempt to place me within their world view, people end up having to ask follow up questions. Who do you work for? Where do you work? Do you spend a lot of time in your pajamas? Do you take a lot of time off? Are you making any money?
Some of these inquiries are welcome. I’m always happy to talk about how I help, about how much I love both the work and the life that I have created. And of course I love the opportunity to spread the word and find new clients. But the “it must be nice to not have to work” comments grate.
Most free agents, myself included, work harder for themselves than they ever did for an employer. We just enjoy it more.
While it’s clear to you by now that I work independently, you still know nothing about what I do. So I’ve shifted my answer from describing how I work to sharing what I do. I help companies get better at developing flexible work programs. I help individuals navigate career transitions. I talk about workplace trends, and I advocate for out of the box thinking around how to get things done.
As the number of people working independently continues to rise, so too does the awareness of this method of making a living. I expect that within another decade the confusion around how and where we work will resolve itself. At some point it will be clear that people who work independently are not pajama-wearing slackers who are just waiting for a real job. In time we’ll see some new terms with more positive connotations, and perhaps the “F” word will no longer make your friends think you got sacked. But in the meantime, if we meet up at a cocktail party or a networking event, you can call me a free agent, even a rebel or a mold breaker. But please don’t call me a freelancer.