Chasing Security: freelancing vs. 9-5?

Tom TumbushAt a recent networking mixer for creatives—about half students, half working professionals—I noticed something I hadn’t encountered before. None of the students were interested in freelancing, and some of the less-established solopreneurs were trying to get back into corporate jobs.

“Freelancing is too unstable,” one said.

“In these economic times, I’d rather have the security of a corporate job,” I heard from another. And so it went for much of the evening.

This attitude surprised me, especially since none of the freelancers who had been in business for a while seemed to have the same opinion. What’s more, many of the agency people were passing out business cards with links to their personal websites and portfolios. A few of these were looking for better jobs, but nearly all of them were open to freelance work.

When I did my follow-up messages the next day, I noticed another significant thing. Most of the folks who were singing the praises of corporate jobs weren’t doing much to promote themselves. At least half of them didn’t have websites, and all of them expressed pure terror at the thought of cold calling or talking about money.

I’ve been a solopreneur for about a decade now. Prior to that I spent about the same amount of time in the corporate world. I’ve seen good and bad economic times in both environments, and I can say without hesitation that being your own boss is the better gig. But it seems there’s something about the notion of an old-fashioned company job with a regular paycheck and health insurance benefits that has a strong appeal for today’s up-and-coming talent.

It’s a tempting vision, but frankly I still don’t buy it because it puts all your eggs in one basket. When you take that “safe” company job, you’re actually taking the biggest career risk there is: that a single source of income will support the lifestyle you want for as long as you want to linger there.

That’s a myth because rising costs, changing markets, disruptive technologies, and other factors have conspired to make company loyalty to employees a relic of the past. And while a few firms still offer decent healthcare or other benefit packages, most are switching to plans that are largely funded by a bite out of your paycheck.

But don’t take my word for it…just ask anyone who’s been pounding the pavement looking for work for the last two years how stable their corporate jobs were when the crash hit. A recent NPR story told the tale of a 50-year-old former regional bank manager who’s been unemployed since December of 2008. He’s thrilled to have finally found a job doing data entry on a midnight shift for 10 bucks an hour. You probably know a few people with similar stories.

For my money, a well-promoted freelance business is a far more secure place to ride out tough times. If one of your clients cuts back, finds someone else, or goes bust, others can carry you through. Sure, you may have to step up your marketing efforts to maintain your salary, but it beats not getting paid at all.

And let’s not forget the other perks of being self-employed, like full control of when and how you work, no rush-hour commute, and the freedom to drop any client who doesn’t treat you with respect.

So don’t give up your freelance dreams just yet. Financial recovery hasn’t trickled down to Main Street, but there are signs that it’s already underway. Mastering the skills of self-promotion will help you weather the storm, grow your business despite the downturn, and leave you well-placed for even bigger success when the economy rebounds.

BTW: If you’re on the fence, trying to decide if the freelancing life is for you (and it’s not for everyone!), come to the Creative Freelancer Conference (June 23-24, 2011 in Chicago) and learn from your peers what it’s really like. Then decide whether to make the leap — you can even do it right then and there! Several people have launched their freelance businesses at CFC.

4 thoughts on “Chasing Security: freelancing vs. 9-5?

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  2. Amber

    This was a great read, Tom. I am in my second year of school working towards my B.A. and have dabbled in some freelance work while also working full-time. For me, the company I am currently employed is a start-up and unstable. We run the risk of being out of the job everyday. I have been working on building a freelance clientele as a precaution and after reading your blog I am feeling better about my direction. Thanks!

  3. Ann

    Great post. I’m a freelancer and a part-time teacher at a community college.

    At school, I we mostly prepare students for the 9-5 life. But the truth is, if a graduating class has 50 people in it, about three will get 9-5 jobs. And only one of those jobs will have grown-up benefits such as health insurance, 401k, etc.

    I think we need to prepare our students to create their own brands, and to work on those brands no matter what their income streams are.

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