Freelance and Self Employed are FILTHY WORDS.

As a fan of George Carlin’s gags on wordplay, as well as someone who likes contemplating the real meaning behind words, I’m going to get a little controversial here:

If you are a ‘self employed’ or ‘freelance’ anything, STOP using the words ‘freelance’ and ‘self employed’.

Do you know what people really hear when you utter those words?

Unemployed.

“Hello, I’m Janice. I’m a freelance web designer” says Janice, shaking hands at a networking event. Often, Janice is really unemployed and only has a degree in multimedia.

I will now apologize in advance as I do not mean to insult people. There are plenty of talented, in-demand people that swear by those words. However, I strongly urge people to re-consider labeling themselves as ‘freelance’ or ‘self employed’.

In a world where everyone will soon be “self employed’, the laws of inflation take hold. It’s projected within the next decade people calling themselves “self-employed”, “freelance”, or “1099er” will be in the MAJORITY. There’s even a phrase for it RIGHT NOW, the “Gig Economy”.

That means the words “freelance” and “self employed”, much like college degrees, lose their luster…a lot of their luster. A college degree and being a freelancer meant something in 1985. In 2015, it means eye rolls and yawning.

Look at websites offering gigs to art freelancers for instance. You have designers, filmmakers, animators, expected to take on $5 jobs on certain websites, like Fiverr. These websites lure the “self employed” artists in with an outdated aura of prestige the word “freelancer” used to have. Then they have to compete with people overseas who will work for $2 a day. These websites, once considered cutting edge 5–10 years ago, now just facilitate paying people less than minimum wage as US “freelancers” feel the need to get “exposure” while competing with someone in Bosnia.

It’s gotten so bad that I got an invite from a random person on Facebook a while back to like their business page. He was a driver for Uber, the company that got busted for claiming their drivers were “1099, self employed contractors”: most of those drivers report not even making minimum wage, by the way. Anyway, his page had a logo for his “driving business” which was nothing more than his Uber contact info and schedule. I like the spirit and wish him well, but again, this is what people associate with the words “freelance” and “self employed” nowadays.

A decent portion of workers in the “Gig Economy” don’t even have a consistent trade. Most people under 40 years of age know someone just like this. They’ll 1099 bartend on Monday, 1099 bike message on Wednesday, photograph for $50 on Friday, and maybe pick up work on one of the countless freelance sites over the weekend. That weekend will consist of babysitting, canvassing, modeling, and God knows what else.

Look closely on your Facebook friends’ profiles. When someone loses a job, OFF comes the company they used to work at, and ON goes “Self Employed Photographer” or “Freelance Make Up artist”.

Now take an even bigger look at your friends profiles, the ones that are also freelance. Look for people who truly are busy, in-demand, and post about the big paying projects they work on…you know…the people that truly are self employed. You’ll notice something they have in common.

“Self employed” and “freelance” are NOWHERE to be found on their profiles or on their posts.

They don’t feel the need to use the word.

Do the Facebook (or LinkedIn) survey yourself and feel free to comment if I’m wrong.

So what happened? It’s the basic laws of inflation:

You have a tidal wave of employers misclassifying contingent workers as “1099” employees and those “pseudo-contractor-employee” hybrids like the sound of being “self employed” or “freelance” for a vaporous job, with the “potential”…you know…”later on” to be a self starter.

You have the boon of affordably powerful computers and high end tech gear. This introduced a massive gravitation towards tech and art fields that were traditionally done by skilled freelancers, but now almost anyone can do them…or say they can.

You have the internet, so fast and powerful, with affordable iPhones, which create jobs that produce digital content and instant networks out of thin air. And with that college degree of yours, you can make that digital content. However so can the person that doesn’t have a college degree, that learned their job on Youtube. And if you’re that person who never went to college and learned on Youtube, guess what? People in third world countries can also do your job. And thanks to the internet, people in the market for what you do can find those people in third world countries. They can find them just as easily as they can find you, even if they don’t even speak the same language. And you’re all in the “freelancer” category.

This is not a hyperbole. I’m in the Media Arts field and know plenty of studio owners who outsource their motion graphics overseas (After Effects / 3D modeling/Maya etc). Thanks to “freelance” websites, overseas “freelancers” get to make $50-$100 dollars to animate a full blown commercial, even though there’s a language barrier. The owner of the video studio says “Oh we just use Google translate, it’s not much of a problem. It was a $4000 sale, so worst case scenario, I just hire a second Maya 3D artist overseas and still have $3500 to work with as a profit margin”.

So this is what “freelance” and “self employed” have come to mean — gleaning for scraps with the whole world.

I want to say something very important.

I’m not asking you to stop using those words because of what OTHER PEOPLE may think of you.

I’m asking you to stop using those words because of what YOU THINK OF YOU.

It’s not about how others perceive you, that’s shallow thinking. This is all about self image. Let’s take a closer look at what “Freelance” and “Self Employed” truly mean.

You’re asking PERMISSION from someone to practice your profession when you use those words. You’re hoping to be noticed. You’re hoping that eventually you’ll be the person that truly is a freelancer. You’re hoping that one day, people will be coming to you and you’ll have to turn them away. At that point, you’ll truly be self employed and when someone asks you’ll say:

“I’m Tony, I’m a…photographer”.

Nearly every person I’ve met that was truly self employed NEVER refers to themselves as ‘self employed’ or ‘freelance’. This holds true even if they are a one-man-band with no employees or studio space. They don’t feel out of their league by only stating their profession without those modifier words, ‘freelance’ and ‘self employed’.

So why do people use them?

‘Self employed’ and ‘freelance’ are nothing more than MARKETING BUZZWORDS. Some e-lance website’s CMO made it up and slapped it on their website to attract cheap labor. People fall for it and use those words because it “feels good”. I’ll refer you to George Carlin here, because you can throw the words ‘self employed’ and ‘freelance’ in with “chocolatey”, “lemony”, and “homestyle”.

“New York Style Deli means it’s not located in New York or they wouldn’t have to say New York Style.”

A company making “chocolatey flavored drink” doesn’t feel confident saying “chocolate drink” and can’t, it’s not true. Saying it’s not real chocolate isn’t appealing, hence the buzzword “chocolatey”.

‘Freelance’ and ‘self employed’ have become the same exact concept.

When a website like Fiverr needs content creators, it sounds awful saying “Hey you’ll get $5 gigs and we’d like to take about $1 of that as a profit margin”. So they say, “It’s for freelancers” instead. “Build your portfolio” they say.

Magically, a user base appears for sites like Fiverr and they can sustain themselves. It makes their workforce feel good. That $5 job the creative professional just completed, even though they made 25 cents an hour, is “confirmation” to that person that they are in fact “a self employed freelance creative professional that sets his own hours and has a portfolio of business clients and references, while building an online presence”. (Say the bold part in your head in George Carlin’s voice).

And congrats, you just did something for barely any pay just so you could get someone’s “permission” to do your craft and proclaim self employment.

Which is why people sign up for this crap. It self affirmation that they’re in business for themselves.

The marketing “BS” isn’t just from the top down. ‘Freelancers’ are complicit and do it to themselves. It sounds AWFUL to say “marginally employed with sparse gigs” at a networking event or to a potential client. But, much like the company who makes ‘chocolatey’ goods won’t say chocolate, some people just can’t bring themselves to say “I’m an audio engineer” when they’re barely employed with a degree in music. So they employ the buzzwords “freelance” and “self employed” as a modifier, in fear of further scrutiny. I’ve told people to take off the word ‘freelancer’ or ‘self employed’ from their online profiles and they felt guilty as hell at the thought.

Some “freelancers” may say “Well, I just say ‘freelance’ to be clear, otherwise they’ll ask if I’m with a company or not.” But really, let’s take a look at how employees (W2) identify themselves:

“I’m John, I’m a photographer at St. Frank’s Eye Hospital”.

“Hello, I’m Jan, I’m a graphic designer for Stanton-Xavier Communications”.

“Hello, I’m Mike, I’m a videographer for the Philadelphia 76ers”.

Employees are the ones that use modifiers clearly stating they’re a tradesman with a specific organization. There’s never been the need to use a modifier for solopreneurs by using the words ‘freelance’ and ‘self employed’. If you don’t state a company name, it’s automatically implied your self employed, especially since a lot of professions are historically rooted in self employment and never needed further clarification.

Why is there guilt in dropping the terms from your vocabulary?

They’ll see a lack of activity, perhaps? They’ll see a sparse portfolio, phone not ringing, an unexciting 9–5 job as the main source of income, perhaps.
The words ‘freelance’ and ‘self employed’ imply that already and it’s a probability cloud of present / future tense: “Yeah I could be commissioned for a huge project right now, or maybe not…I’ll keep you, and myself, guessing that. I’m juggling inquiries as of yesterday…or maybe not. I had a call from a guy looking to hire me to help his startup, he totally has capital and wasn’t expecting a free handout for ‘experience’…or was he?”.

Saying “I’m Dara, I’m a web designer” sounds so…present tense…you’ll have to answer questions and present a conversation about your life…right now…ermagerd! “They’ll ask me about marketing and how I make the phone ring and what I’m working on right now. OH NO!”

So ‘freelance’ and ‘self employed’ are ways of shutting people up, so they won’t ask follow up questions. People that don’t use those words have to back them up with further conversation. And the ones that are truly bringing in the business, don’t wait to be asked, they volunteer information.

So the solution? Say ‘chocolate’.

“But they’re still asking if I’m freelance or with a company”.

That’s because you hesitated and sheepishly said what you do. SPEAK UP.

“But…I felt guilty saying…”

And there in lies the problem.

Gary Hanna
Psynema: Philadelphia Video Production — Corporate, Commercial, Animation, and Screenwriting