Depending on which side of the desk you find yourself, the connotations of the word “freelancer” vary widely. If you’re the freelancer, all sorts of attractive associations pop up: Namely, working from bed.
For those running their own freelance game, the word is often a badge worn with honor: It signals to the world you’re shaping your career how you see fit, taking control of what you do and when you do it.
But what does that word signal to the person looking to hire you? The premium that freelancers place on flexibility is something that our work culture has largely identified as a weak spot to be exploited, particularly because artistic types aren’t always known for their business-first skills.
The word itself has been around since the Middle Ages and originally referred to mercenaries-for-hire that used literal lances. Making “Sir Freelancealot” an extremely accurate pun name, if you’re in the market.
Unfortunately, the tenuous nature of freelance work leaves its practitioners vulnerable in a number of un-punny ways: It’s a never-ending struggle to maintain some level of consistent income, and when it comes to traditional workplace perks like health insurance, paid sick leave, vacation time, and saving for retirement, you’re on your own.
As anyone who’s flown solo knows, the drawbacks of non-traditional employment can result in some desperate times, which in turn results in freelancers taking jobs for less than they’re worth. This tends to have a ripple effect, driving down rates for everyone, and this vicious cycle has gotten us to the point that the word “freelance” is synonymous with “cheap” (and worst-case scenario, “payment-optional”).
As the “employer-independent” sector has boomed, the damage is making itself quite evident — so much so that a 2014 study conducted by the Freelancers Union found 71% of freelancers in New York were having trouble tracking down payment. In response, the city recently passed a law called “The Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” which sets in place a contract requirement between client and freelancer, and protocol for the latter party to demand payment within 30 days of project completion. Should the client fail to pay on time, the freelancer is also provided access to legal recourse.
And there’s more potential good news on the horizon: Two lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would provide grants to local governments and nonprofits so they could provide those aforementioned traditional workplace benefits to non-traditional workers.
Still, the logistical issues freelancers face are closely tied to a problem of culture and the way we’ve collectively trained ourselves to react to those of us who choose to be employer-independent — a status that nearly 54 million Americans claim, according to that same study from the Freelancers Union. And it ultimately leads us to ask: Are the negative associations with the word “freelance” too far gone at this point?
Ideally, legislation will continue to progress in a way that shifts our culture toward being more supportive for those of us outside traditional employer setups. In the meantime, when it comes to describing what you do and how you do it, there’s a workaround that at the very least is more neutral-sounding, and at best, more impressive-sounding: Independent contractor.
While there’s some minor debate as to whether these terms are perfectly interchangeable (and as to whether the term “contractor” additionally refers to hourly employees brought onto a team or into an office for a set period of time,) so long as you’re executing work under a contracted agreement (which you absolutely should be doing), it’s a title that fits.
Both terms mean you’re self-employed, and from a tax point of view, there’s no difference.
And hey, if freelance creatives not only start owning this term, but keep pushing their local representatives to seek out support legislation that tens of millions of Americans so desperately need, employer-independent workers across the country are poised to keep progressing towards that sweet spot of flexibility and stability, which is a win for us all.