Freelancers: the New Working Class?

Richard Greenwald

Those who graduated college last May have had to make some economic adjustments. The recession changed their job market and opportunities, so they think. They have been forced to make do, many with part-time or temp work.

Some have become freelancers by default. They may think this is just temporary, the result of the current economic downturn, and that things will return to normal soon. Well, welcome to the new normal.

Recent economic data reveals an interesting pattern. More and more college graduates will become freelancers. Jobs, you know the 9-5 variety, with health benefits, retirement plans, and vacations, are drying up.

Thousands have become e-lancers, consultants and freelancers by default. These new road warriors are working more hours and are at greater economic risk than workers during their parent’s generation.

These new freelancers (the topic of endless newspaper articles) are the children of the middle class (hence the newspaper articles). They join thousands of others trying to eek out a living one day at a time as contingent workers, day laborers and contract labor.

This risk shift has been good for employers (gives them flexibility, etc), but what about the new contingent workers? They all lack health benefits, vacations, retirement plans, and even the minimum protection of labor laws. It is as if we have turned back the clock and are in a pre-New Deal era.

These freelancers, like the craft workers of the 19th century, see themselves as different from immigrant day laborers. Their education and family’s economic status (i.e. race and class) should, many believe, insulate them from the most adverse aspects of capitalism.

But in so many ways these privileged children are the canary in the coalmine. They are symbols of a major shift within capitalism to a freelance economy, a shift that the American working class has lived under for decades. Corporations have long used outsourcing; but, until recently, it was only blue-collar jobs. Today’s outsourced workers are the once highly paid white-collar workers of the recent past.

In a commencement address last May to the graduates of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, Barbara Ehrenreich welcomed the grads of one of the nation’s most prestigious J-Schools to the working class.

Ehrenreich told them, whether they knew it or not, that they shared much with autoworkers. They are working in a dying industry that has no jobs and a shaky future. They’re got skills; they’re got experience,” she said. They just don’t have jobs.”

However there is a difference,” she stated. Writers can write anywhere while autoworkers can’t build a car in their garage.” Those graduates can freelance, while autoworkers cannot. They have a chance, even if it is small, to eek out a living in their profession. Ehrenreich recognizes freelancers as working stiffs who struggle to make ends meet, even if they don’t.

And that’s the problem. The underlying theme of much of the literature on freelancing is that one can be successful if one works hard and smart. Do an Amazon search for books on freelancing and one will find hundreds of books of the how-to-succeed freelancing variety.

So, many in the audience at UC Berkeley that day might not have taken Ehrenreich words to heart. Instead, they might be thinking that they will rise above their peers, that talent and perseverance, pluck and luck, will work for them. The odds are against them.

There is some sign of hope. Recently freelancer organizations, like the Freelancers Union, have sprung up. They are not unions in any real sense and they lack the sense of class consciousness to become a social movement (yet).

But, they have helped create a sense of collectivity and recently politics for this growing sector of the workforce. Recently the Freelancers Union has started to politically mobilize members, endorsing candidates and lobbying for legislative reforms.

Will they make the next leap and try to actually organize” the industry”? Or will they develop into another professional organization? Only time will tell….

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county’s leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.
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