The imperfect freedoms of the freelancer in the changing world of work

Self-employment can offer a great deal of flexibility, but it can also result in a poorer work-life balance. lulemon athletica

Welcome to the Future of Work, a series from The Conversation that looks at the ongoing evolution of the workplace. Today, University of South Australia’s Barbara Pocock looks at the rise of freelance workers.


Anyone who has read Claire Dederer’s memoir Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses, will have gleaned some insight into the romantic hopes of the freelancer. A writer, Dederer spends her days working at home with her partner (also a freelancer) nearby, taking extended walks and improving her downward dog – and many other yoga poses - in between assignments. She does not have to deal with a boss, she has no start or finish times, no dreary commute, no need for negotiation with colleagues around tasks and time, and no need for shallow water cooler conversations with people she does not care much about.

However, as Dederer’s story shows, the freelancer’s life is not all a happy or smooth one, even in a bustling haven of freelancing like Seattle. Her household’s income is low and unpredictable: they do not starve, but there are unsteady moments. When her children come along, she describes the schizo-manic life of mother-worker, torn between the deadline and the playground. She has children who need her at inconvenient times, an extended family who think she should be “on tap” because she is not clocked into an office somewhere, and has a career that is, well, not a career but a flexible supplement to her partner’s vocation.

Dederer – like millions of other workers around the world, in growing numbers – is in pursuit of control while performing her occupation. She wants to follow a vocation, earn a living, and stay in charge. Years of research about jobs that are good for our health and wellbeing provide a rationale for this quest: autonomy at work is good for you – that is, control over what you do, and how and when you do it. Jobs that offer low levels of control – especially where tasks are demanding ‑ are toxic for workers, who feel trapped by having too much to do, while having no way of controlling their working lives.

In 2011, one million Australian workers are technically in the “independent contractor” or freelancer category. This is a lot in a workforce of just 11.4 million. Changing technologies and growth in the services sector, in company with the changing demographics, preferences and care responsibilities of workers like Dederer, are driving growth in new forms of employment. Business strategy also explains this growth – with many businesses (like newspapers) looking to cut labour costs, outsource functions and more tightly match labour supply to specific tasks. This means more work is occurring outside traditional employment relationships, creating a challenge to the regulation of fair working practices. Unfortunately, this issue doesn’t get anywhere near as much political airplay as fights, for example, on the well-rehearsed IR stamping grounds of collective agreements versus individual contracts.

Some people turn to independent work in pursuit of control, because it lets them do what they want, does away with a boss, and because they are put off by inflexible work schedules. Some get what they want. However, it seems that many do not.

Our large national surveys of work-life interference in Australia, for example, show year after year that self-employment does not result in better work-life balance: on a range of work-life measures life looks about as busy for the self-employed, on average, as it does for employees (for example see Pocock, Skinner and Pisaniello, 2010). However, when we look at part-timers and full-timers separately, the full-time self-employed do longer hours than employees – nearly a day a week – and not surprisingly, they have worse work-life outcomes than full-time employees. These same results are evident amongst parents: self-employment does not result in better work-life outcomes for mothers and fathers, compared with employment. Outcomes for fathers in particular are worse.

ABS surveys tell us that only 60% of independent contractors (defined as those who operate their own business and contract to provide services to others) have authority over their own work (ABS 2011). Many others are essentially on the end of the phone or under instruction from clients – often a single client. Autonomy is probably far from their daily experience. That said, most (82%) have some say over their start and finish times, which is well above that available to the 40% of employees who have some flexibility of this type.

In fact, many so-called independent contractors are actually “dependent” contractors. For example, a third of all such contractors are in the construction industry and another sizeable group drive trucks and work in the transport sector, with very little authority over their own work. They far outnumber the freelancer professional. And far from being in control of their working lives and fitting their jobs around other activities, they are often on the end of the phone and accepting the terms of engagement offered by a boss – sorry, client. As the recent public inquiry into insecure work pointed out, bogus employment arrangements of this type need regulating in a changing labour force.

Many people – employers and employees - want to organise work differently: employees because they accurately perceive prevailing workplace cultures as inflexible and inefficient, and employers because the nature of their business and its environment is changing. The work-life and productivity dividends of better arrangements may well be sizable. But realising them requires ‑ as Bill Shorten recently said – the employment relations debate in Australia to rise above “quackery” and the re-run of old debates in old tracks. Instead, we must come to grips with new kinds of workers, looking for new kinds of work arrangements, that can deliver both good work, fair outcomes and sustainable work-life outcomes.

While the romantic life of the yogi freelancer might be realised by some, it is not the dominant experience. Decent labour standards and good management to underpin new types of employment are essential in Australia for the million who work this way now - and the many more who are likely to in the future.