The free way

Whether by choice, chance or necessity, many workers of all ages are turning in their employee badges for careers as consultants, freelancers and independent workers. How does life in the flex lane really work?

Lorraine Wong hasn’t had her own office in more than two years, although she has worked in a half- dozen.

Since founding her management consulting firm, Cue North Consulting, in 2015, Wong has been moving from workplace to workplace and project to project around her native Vancouver, sometimes juggling several jobs at the same time. In the past year alone, she has helped open a pharmacy across the border in the US, recruited staff for a small enterprise and advised several Chinese entrepreneurs on branding for the Canadian market. “I’m either in client offices or having meetings in different places,” she says. “I’m not tied down anywhere.”

Working as a consultant was a conscious choice for Wong. After working in large professional service firms for 14 years in Toronto, Vancouver and Hong Kong, she decided she needed something different from a traditional office environment. “I like doing a wide variety of projects,” she says. “I prefer change.” She also wanted the flexibility to raise her young children without being bogged down by the stress and hours of a corporate job. “One of the big drivers for me is definitely the ability to manage my own time so I can schedule around things I need to do for my kids,” she says. “I’m not really a millennial even though I’m behaving like one.”

Wong is far from alone. She is one of the many workers of all types and ages who are trading in their employee badges for careers as consultants, freelancers and independent workers — whether by choice, as in her case, or by necessity, as corporations cut their spending, industries restructure and automation accelerates. In a 2012 Maclean’s article, Chris Sorensen described this shift as a transition from what has been called the “IBM model of employment,” based on the principle of a well-trained workforce remaining loyal to a company and in return receiving decent wages, benefits and community, to the “Apple Inc. model,” where jobs are short term, can be a great ride, but hold no promises for the future. Companies and workers like Wong, say the model’s proponents, are both after one thing — flexibility — which, they argue, is best purveyed through short-term work arrangements.

THE FREELANCE CONTINUUM

Employment statistics certainly indicate a growth in nontraditional work compared with earlier decades. According to Statistics Canada, the self-employed accounted for 15.3% of Canada’s workforce in 2016, up from 12.1% in 1976. The number of temporary workers is also on the rise, growing from 9.4% of the workforce in 1997, when statistics were first collected on the group, to 11.2% in 2016. Likewise, last year’s job numbers painted a clear picture of the evolution of the labour market, with the number of part-time jobs growing more than the number of full-time jobs. A 2017 study by MBO Partners predicted that more than 50% of the US workforce will be “independents” in 2027 (or will have had that status at some point).

While it’s common to link the trend with millennials, it is associated with all age groups. And those workers aren’t all concentrated in writing, design and the arts — the industries most commonly associated with freelancing. According to a 2016 report by US staffing platform FlexJobs, the most in-demand career fields for independent workers are medical and health; education; project management; IT; and accounting and finance. Even sectors that used to be seen as safe havens for permanent jobs are now experiencing a growth in nontraditional work: universities are hiring more instructors and fewer tenured professors and hospitals are hiring on-call nurses. “I don’t know what sector isn’t affected by this,” says Leslie Dyson, a freelance journalist and communications specialist who serves as president of the Canadian Freelance Union.

In this context, the term “freelance” is beginning to cover a number of different realities, from the classic self-employed graphic designer to the plumber who gets work on apps such as AskforTask. There’s even a small contingent that a 2012 Harvard Business Review article called “supertemps,” usually top managers or IT specialists who rake in hundreds of thousands a year in contracts for major corporations. “It’s certainly very heterogeneous,” says Université Laval professor Martine D’Amours, a labour sociologist specializing in independent work. While D’Amours says freelancers should technically be referred to as self-employed (as opposed to salaried) workers, she acknowledges that the term is insufficient to capture all the different permutations of payment systems (project-based versus contractual), time commitments (part time, full time, temporary, seasonal, year round) and legal standings (incorporated businesses, sole proprietors, unregistered) that supposedly fall under its purview. “We’re dealing with a continuum rather than a dichotomy of types of work,” she says.

But that continuum is not only swallowing new sectors; it’s also creating — and normalizing — new forms of social and economic inequality. “Much as we’re seeing formal self-employment develop in some sectors,” D’Amours says, “it also seems that in others, it’s morphing into a form of traditional employment — but without the security or the protections.”

It’s a development that brings up a few questions. How far do freelancers need to stretch in the name of flexibility? Are they truly the ones benefiting? Is it really possible to thrive in the freelance economy?

A NEW WAY OF ORGANIZING LABOUR

Independent work may be on the rise now, but it was once even more prevalent. In 1946, 33% of Canadians were self-employed, with farmers and agricultural workers accounting for 68% of that group. Tradespeople and members of the professional class (lawyers, doctors, notaries) also typically ran solo businesses. What we call traditional employment is a relatively new phenomenon, the result of post-Second World War social and economic restructuring and the push by labour unions for better working conditions. However, the freelance economy that is emerging today doesn’t look anything like its former incarnations. “Today the distribution of independent workers by sector shows a far greater number in [areas such as] professional, scientific and technical services,” D’Amours says, adding that the client is far more likely to be a business than an individual. “All that has an impact on the relationship between the independent worker and the client.”

The shift, according to D’Amours and other observers, began in the 1980s and sped up in the 1990s — an era marked by recessions, increasing globalization and technological development. “The trend since the 1980s has been for businesses to refocus on what is generally called their ‘core business,’ and to externalize the rest,” D’Amours says. “So while some may say we’re witnessing a renaissance in entrepreneurship, I believe what we’re really dealing with is a particular way of organizing labour.”

Linda Singer and Vera Gavizon, Tahir Hameed, Andrew Cash

Linda Singer and Vera Gavison launched Workhoppers in 2012Tahir Hameed worked with PwC’s Flexibility2 Talent Network in 2015. Andrew Cash co-founded the Urban Worker Project, a group that aims to give a voice to workers in the freelance economy.

Technology has had a part to play in exacerbating that development, with the push toward automation, which has been eliminating entire occupations, and the development of digital tools that make remote work more viable. It has also made it possible for online staffing platforms such as Montreal’s Workhoppers to emerge and facilitate the growth of freelance work. Launched by working mothers Vera Gavizon and Linda Singer in 2012, the site focuses on connecting businesses and workers at a local scale, as a riposte of sorts to the trend toward offshore outsourcing. “Our goal was to create a site that helps people easily connect directly, without a headhunter,” Singer says. “It’s designed to be like a dating site, where you find the best match.”

As a two-woman management team, Gavizon and Singer themselves rely on freelancers to run their operations. “If we need writers, we hire writers. When we need our bookkeeper, we call her up,” Singer says. “It gives us the flexibility to meet our different needs.” And they are actively pushing companies to do the same. “It’s been a challenge to make companies realize that writing and design aren’t the only things they can freelance out,” Gavizon says. “We try to put the word out about hiring in different industries.”

FREE SPIRITS AND SPECIALISTS

For the past 20 years, Trina Casey-Myatt has been in a good position to watch independent work grow in the accounting and finance sector. As a recruiting specialist at the Calgary branch of Accountemps, the accounting and finance division of staffing platform Robert Half, she has seen an acceleration in companies’ demand for consultants. “I think the big change in the tax world is that many companies used to just go to their CPA firm,” she says. “Companies are now realizing that there are consultants out there with fantastic experience.” She cites senior financial analysts, senior accountants, tax accountants and systems analysts as the professionals that have been most in demand. “The trend there is that they tend to be very highly specialized,” she says. “[Theirs is] not the kind of skill set you need on staff all year long.”

CPA firms themselves are embracing the freelance economy through formal in-house programs. In 2013, PwC instituted the Flexibility2Talent Network (FTN), mainly to supplement its staff through busy periods such as tax and audit season. For program participants such as Tahir Hameed, a short-term work arrangement was helpful in the immigration transition from Pakistan to Canada. “When I arrived in 2015, I had commitments related to my immigration process as well as side business projects,” he says. Having worked as an auditor for PwC in Lahore for three-and-a-half years, he had heard of FTN and applied upon arriving in Toronto. He was hired on to work full time through the 2015 audit season, allowing him to return to his side projects for the rest of the year.

Hameed stresses the importance of adaptability in the temporary work world. “If someone is working for a client for a year, they know the ins and outs of their file. As a temporary worker, you have to be catching up every time you’re hired on.” Conversely, he notes that temporary work can be a means for those who have left the profession to keep up to speed with current developments. “I have seen people in their mid-50s who are transitioning towards retirement choose to come back as flexible workers,” he says. “This allows them to stay relevant on market trends.”

For some, such as Ottawa-based project manager Céline Romanin, freelancing also fits with a personal desire for independence. In her case, two years on the permanent staff of a nongovernmental organization were enough to make her launch her consultancy in 2007. “I didn’t like always being stuck with the same tasks, the same challenges,” she says. Over the course of 10 years, she gathered a loyal client base in the not-for-profit sector, developing a specialization in strategic planning for small organizations, awareness campaigns and project evaluation. She has been so successful that one of her major clients asked to hire her on as an employee last year. But now, a year into her two-year contract, she misses consultancy. “For me, just thinking I have an employer affects my performance,” she says. “I prefer to say it’s my client; I’m more inclined to deliver results.”

One thing Romanin doesn’t miss, though, are the times when she was working seven days a week juggling multiple contracts — a common reality for many freelancers. Wong also cites constantly being “on” as one of the biggest challenges of working independently in the age of tech-fuelled communication. Since launching her consultancy, Wong finds her phone constantly buzzing with new WhatsApp messages, SMSs, WeChat requests and file transfers. “You’re never really off — and because it’s all instantaneous, they tend to expect a reply quite quickly.” She felt the toll of the freelance lifestyle especially powerfully after having her second child. “When I was on maternity leave, I still worked, because there was some client work I just had to do,” she says.

SHOCK ABSORBERS

Freelancers such as Romanin and Wong certainly belie the old stereotype of the “lazy” freelancer. That stereotype was misplaced to begin with, according to Andrew Cash, a former MP and musician who co-founded the Urban Worker Project, a group that aims to give a voice to workers in the freelance economy. “There’s this kind of societal bias against independent workers, as though they weren’t working ‘full time,’ ” he says. “[But] as an independent, even if you have a job, you also have to work to get your next job. It’s really hard to take time off, because what if you miss that gig?” he continues. “It’s very frustrating and stressful.”

Actor and writer Thom Vernon knows that lifestyle well. “Monday to Friday, in the 4 p.m.-to-6 p.m. window, an email will come in saying, ‘Here’s the script for an audition’ — and it’s happening the next day or in the next few days,” he says. Vernon usually attends, although he knows how hard it is to land gigs. Instead, he relies on his income as a contractual creative writing instructor at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, in addition to freelance work as a writing and acting coach. “I’ve been able to make a living thinking about how I can be of service and what I can offer based on my life experience and skills, and then monetizing it in ways that are fair,” he says. “That to me is the best part of being a freelancer.” But he also knows that even his most stable gig could theoretically go anytime. “There’s no institutional loyalty to me,” he says.

Nor are there benefits or traditional workplace protections — a reality that has led critics to question the real motives behind companies’ push to externalize. To be sure, while firms go “flexible” and “agile,” workers are left to fend for themselves on all levels, from health and dental insurance to legal assistance and sick leave. Hired on as “independent contractors,” they are not entitled to the same benefits as salaried employees even though they often do the same work. Seen from this perspective, freelancers are not so much independent agents as shock absorbers for companies’ efforts to preserve their bottom line.

Cash argues that laissez-faire attitudes at the policy level have allowed imbalances to emerge. “For a long time, I think it was easy for politicians, policy-makers and the media to ignore independent workers,” he says. “Consequently, you get inequities in the system, like the fact that independent workers have to pay almost double for their public pension as conventional workers do.” Indeed, freelancers pay both the employee and the employer portions of their Canada Pension Plan contributions. Moreover, even though freelancers are in a position where they can go for weeks or months at a time without a contract, most are ineligible for employment insurance during slow periods. Five special EI programs are available to them: maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care, as well as one for parents of critically ill children (except in Quebec, where maternity, paternity and parental benefits are already covered under the provincial parental insurance plan). However, these programs come with some strings attached: once self-employed individuals have claimed benefits, they are obligated to pay into the system for the rest of their working lives.

Some freelancers, such as Kallvis Gents, who works in Toronto’s fashion industry (see “Millennial Entrepreneurs” at cpacanada.ca/mag-millennials), have accepted that it all comes with the territory. “You need to make sure your hourly rate can cover your insurance, your dental expenses and the rest. It’s not just ‘I love doing this, so I’m going to freelance this.’ Being a freelancer doesn’t mean just doing your job; it means running your own business.”

Other freelancers rely on a partner or a spouse with a stable income to cover their benefits. Vernon did too, until his partner moved to the US to pursue a PhD. He has since opted to purchase private insurance — but finds even that to be insufficient. “I just had to get new glasses that cost more than $600 [and] even the private insurance paid for less than $300 of that.” Vernon is also looking ahead with dread to the time when he comes face to face with his limited public pension. “I don’t ever plan on retiring, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be forced to retire,” he says. “However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that my earning capacity will be able to meet my needs.”

PRECARIOUS WORK

That’s why critics believe it’s important for freelancers — and the public — to know that freelancers have a lot in common with precarious workers. “This is a situation that puts lots of independent workers at risk,” D’Amours says, adding that even those who do well in terms of contracts are vulnerable in the case of unforeseen events. She also notes the dark irony in this new reality: “Of course, all of this ends up compromising independents’ desire for freedom.”

It can also have far-reaching social and economic impacts, as precarious living compromises people’s spending habits, their ability to plan for the future, and their health and well-being. A 2012 study by the PEPSO research group, McMaster University and the United Way found that low-paid precarious workers in Ontario were twice as likely as those in more secure, higher-paid employment to report mental health problems and three times more likely to delay having children. It also found that the growth of freelance work was reproducing existing inequities in the labour market, with women and minorities disproportionately represented among those in precarious employment.

These are some of the reasons why Cash believes freelancers’ issues map onto issues that affect all workers. “I think there’s a real opportunity here to build a stronger social safety net that reflects the reality of work today, not the reality of work after the Second World War,” he says.

Cash’s organization, the Urban Worker Project, is one of several groups that are stepping in to advocate for freelancers and improve their working conditions. Launched just last year, it has gathered almost 8,000 followers across the country and has already contributed to important policy projects such as Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review. The Canadian Freelance Union, meanwhile, endeavours to provide a collective support structure to a vast group of workers for whom unionization is difficult. Since 2009, it has offered social and professional connections, access to benefits, grievance support and contract advice, in addition to acting as a political voice on freelancers’ issues. “It’s all about speaking up and educating,” Dyson says. “And understanding we’re all in this together.”

Singer and Gavizon agree, arguing that companies will also have their part to play in helping freelancers thrive. “As this economy evolves, companies will have to develop their management styles to incorporate freelancers,” Singer says, noting that a sense of belonging and human connection will always be important to workers and that freelancers deserve benefits too. “We just need to keep learning how to meet the challenges.”

If forecasts are true, more challenges and opportunities are certainly on their way, as ever-greater numbers of workers are pushed into independent work or choose that route themselves. Vernon, for one, doesn’t know if he would take a full-time job even if it were offered — partly because he believes he doesn’t need to choose between his work and the way he chooses to do it. “I work hard. I contribute to the economy,” he says. “I think we need to untether the idea of contributing from the notion of an hourly wage and full-time employment.”

A fair request, no doubt, as the freelance economy continues to overturn many of our old conceptions of work — and forces us to imagine a future that provides not only flexibility but real freedom and fairness, too.

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Go to cpacanada.ca/mag-millennials.