The Freelance Life

Why playing it safe amid economic crisis isn’t necessarily safe at all.

My plan was airtight. I quit my well-paying, permanent job because I wanted to be free. I wanted to get away from the daily grind at the office, from being directed by others, from the terrors of nitpicky meetings and required attendance. I had even written a book, Morgen komm ich später rein (Tomorrow I’ll Be in Later), about the fact that we are free to work when and wherever we want to — as long as the job gets done. During my research for the book, I found many progressive companies that gave a lot of freedom to their employees and were highly successful in doing so. However, I knew that my former employer — Vanity Fair Germany, where I had worked as a managing editor — didn’t subscribe to the practice, like most media companies. Journalists are on duty 24/7, and they’d better stay at their desks because something might happen that needs their attention.

Thus, I decided to test my work-anywhere concept, which I called the “Easy Economy,” from the position that best accommodated it: as a freelance writer. I compiled many contacts and ideas, put together a presentable portfolio, and settled on a day rate with which I felt comfortable. The plan was that I would travel the world, writing stories and developing concepts anywhere. After my return to Germany, I would work as a consultant for publishers and agencies or give speeches. Should I get itchy feet for a couple of months, I would simply write my next book … from Buenos Aires, Bangkok, or Born am Darß. I fancied a life that I had always dreamed of: independent, cosmopolitan, and comfortable. Then the economic crisis hit.

It occurred to me that I’d better put my travel plans on hold and look for a steady 9-to-5 job — if there were any to be had — and that I should be glad to get to sit at a desk every day. One day, while I was asking myself seriously whether my decision to abandon my magazine gig had been somewhat rash, my phone buzzed with an SMS alert: “Vanity Fair out of business, all get the sack,” wrote a former colleague from the editorial board. At this point, I knew it was better to leave the sinking ship on my own initiative and with a vision than to cling to a permanent position that, at the end of the day, wasn’t that permanent. At any rate, my laid-off ex-colleagues had rough times ahead of them. The dismissal had taken them by surprise, and most of them didn’t have a plan B. Moreover, when 80 magazine employees look for a new job at once, the competition is fierce.

During the months to follow, jobs that had been believed to be crisis-proof turned out to be rather shaky, even at traditional brands such as Märklin, Rosenthal, Schiesser, Karstadt, and Opel. The security for life that previous generations enjoyed could no longer be found at these companies. I realized that the poor job situation was due to the insecurity that companies felt at the beginning of the crisis. Apparently, my theory wasn’t that naive. There was a chance that I could lead my free, independent, and happy life even in economically difficult times. Today, I earn at least as much as I did as a permanent employee, provided that I don’t take time off. The way I work — sometimes in the office, sometimes in a café in Lisbon — isn’t questioned by anyone anymore. Life isn’t always easy, but I probably couldn’t get any closer to the Easy Economy.

Since then, I have met many people who took very similar routes: Disappointed by old certainties, they decided to take their careers into their own hands and to finally do what they love. They established an e-learning company or invented a little iPhone app that allows people to increase their own productivity. They set up a freelance agency that offers virtual personal assistants, or they spent the winter months working in South America or from a house in the Uckermark.

For some people, the takeaway from the crisis is to stick with security even more and, in particular, with their permanent jobs — provided that they have one. This seems plausible and, for the short term, reasonable. Yet in the long run, it isn’t necessarily the best and definitely isn’t the only strategy. Some workers quit their well-paying jobs because they didn’t want to be intimidated by the crisis or because they perceived it as a chance to do something new. Many young professionals abandoned all hope for permanent employment and started to pursue their own business models from their living rooms, using nothing more than a laptop.

The economic crisis is already over, or at least it feels that way, but the downturn caused a profound change in our mentality. It provided the catalyst for independence, one that experts considered inevitable beforehand. The crisis accelerated our longing for freedom and made the possibilities visible to many people for the first time.

The results are professional paths that have little in common with those of our parents. We are turning our hobbies into professions and making the places where we feel the happiest and the most productive the centers of our lives. We position ourselves much like a brand, work on our strengths, and outsource tasks that we don’t like or that we’re not good at to other experts, maybe even to service providers in other countries. We feel easier about being our own bosses. Above all, however, we think and act in a more independent way. It is a good, exciting, and fulfilling life, yet not everyone is able to lead it. Only those with a good education, a disposition for lifelong learning, cultural open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and a belief in their own abilities will succeed. This also means that many will fall through the cracks. The new working environment — let’s call it the Me-conomy — is tough, and it will divide our societies in half.

The state, social security systems, and numerous political structures will have to adapt to this new world if they want to remain valid. Those who continue to rely on state-based networks, learned routines, and the familiar everyday work life instead of on their own passions and skills will encounter difficult times and will probably be on the losing end.

Monocle magazine called 2009 the “rethink year.” Editor Andrew Tuck, who publishes voices on this topic from all over the world, told me that people had learned to rely on their abilities. “Many had to face terrible losses, but there were also some beneficial corrections,” he said. Tuck also believes that it has become easier now to reinvent yourself: “I know people who were photographic agents and retrained as cooks, same as people who were bankers and became farmers, and they do a good job in both fields. I think that’s great. It’s never too late to do what you really like doing.”

During and after the crisis, many people learned what actually makes them happy. “Do what you love,” it is said, “and you won’t work a single day in your life.” What sounded like an overblown romanticism of self-discovery some time ago has all of a sudden become possible. The digital economy makes it easier and, at the same time, even more necessary to find target groups, supporters, and markets for activities and products that we feel passionate about. Life becomes a toolkit of possibilities, and we are free to put together the parts that suit us.

These days, people around the world exchange information about how everyday things can be managed better with practical tricks and modern technology. They try to optimize their productivity as the good old 9-to-5 day at the office is increasingly a thing of the past. Thanks to the end of required attendance, we are, for the first time, interested in getting things done quickly and more efficiently in order to have leisure time afterward.

At the same time, new communication technologies that are based on the Internet and mobile services are making it easier and easier to build, motivate, and mobilize groups. This way, every person may become the leader of their own “tribe,” as marketing expert Seth Godin says. Today’s 18- to 25-year-olds are already considered the “creative generation”: They not only are used to consuming, but also take producing for granted. This presents another unprecedented chance for self-realization to all of us.

Parallel to working environments, business models are changing, too. “What would Google do?” author Jeff Jarvis asks. He then provides an answer that applies to many business sectors: Google has to invent itself anew, disclose many of its former business secrets, and allow customers and subcontractors to remix its products in an unexpected way. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, has identified “Free” — the giving away of products and services in order to make money in new ways — as the latest trend. One thing is certain: Many business models are undergoing profound changes, and most companies still don’t know how to react to them.

This essentially means two things. First, it doesn’t matter how stable and big our employers used to be. Their future success and, consequently, our jobs are uncertain. Second, the barriers to the successful market entry of new players are lower than ever. Because no one knows how to proceed, it might as well be us who co-invent the future. In a positive sense we are thrown back on ourselves. The smallest meaningful unit that we can rely on in the knowledge society is our mind (i.e., us).

In my new book, Me-conomy, I dwell on 10 pivotal developments that, in my opinion, will shape our work life and, thus, our world during the years to come:

1. Established biographical routines and basic parameters of our plans for life — such as permanent employment, safe pensions, 9-to-5 workdays, or classic education — increasingly lose their value. More and more of what used to make the existence of our parents overseeable has, at best, sentimental value for the generation of under-40-year-olds.

2. Many young people have reservations with regard to state-based structures. In the age of globalization, they take promises of job security with a grain of salt. They put more emphasis on their own initiative and entrepreneurship than on classic careers. Their motto is: If social standards cannot be maintained in the long run anyway, I at least want to be free.

3. Work will become increasingly mobile and flexible. We won’t spend the bulk of our lives in the office anymore. This alteration of our work routines is predominantly a result of technological innovations that also lead to the development of alternative occupational areas. As knowledge, skills, and business models become outdated at an ever-faster pace, we need to reinvent ourselves permanently. For us, the catchphrase “lifelong learning” is a tough reality.

4. We feel that we are on our own. As a consequence, individuality as an aim in life gains more and more importance for many people. Others feel overwhelmed and left behind by the same development.

5. This change affords us a tremendous chance. The opportunities for communication provided by the Internet allow us to find many like-minded people and create a huge laboratory for learning. The imparting of knowledge increasingly becomes free, global, individual, and socially organized.

6. Simultaneously, this communicative connection to the world allows us for the first time to turn our passions into professions and to make money with what inspires us. On the Internet, we find customers, like-minded people, and business models — yet we also encounter maximum competition. This means not only that we need to put more effort into taking charge of our lives, but also that we are actually able to do so.

7. Learning things once in order to apply them to practical work afterward isn’t enough anymore. In fact, we have to present ourselves as a brand and use self-positioning in order to stay competitive. In this context, making use of the Internet’s ability to connect and recalling our own strengths and passions will help us.

8. According to happiness researchers, we fulfill all requirements to be happy with this autonomous, diversified, yet also demanding way of structuring our work and life.

9. Both personal branding and the increasingly mobile and flexible nature of work allow us to choose locations where we are happy and productive. Life and work gain independence from employers and places of residence. We become globally mobile, and this might make us happier.

10. As we decide for ourselves how, where, and with whom we work, the search for meaning gains more importance. The trend to combine economical with social engagement grows stronger. We want to do good, be happy, and make money. In the old patriarchal, hierarchical, and inflexible working world, these aims were often mutually exclusive. In the Me-conomy, their combination is almost a precondition for success.

The Me-conomy does not entail a purely egoistic philosophy. On the contrary, it promotes a new culture of empathy and social engagement. At the same time, the question remains which role the state and its institutions will play and thus what political reforms are necessary. In any case, the Me-conomy is a call to action, an optimistic counterpart to apocalyptic scenarios, crisis depressions, and doctrines of passiveness that suggest we “weather the storm” and “wait and see.” It is a toolkit for life — an invitation not to suffer existence but to actively shape it. It addresses individuals who want to take charge of their own careers, yet it also addresses employers who want to find out which changes their companies will be facing regarding the needs of their highly qualified employees.

We live in confusing times. However, I don’t want to complain about that. Rather, I want to explain why things can be different, what we can learn from them, and how we can use recent developments to build a better life for ourselves and our children.

Markus Albers is a freelance journalist and nonfiction writer living in Berlin. His latest book is Me-conomy: How We Will Work and Live Tomorrow — and Why We Must Reinvent Ourselves Today.
www.markusalbers.com

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