“Broad City” Portrays Freelance Life?

For the record, following a post wondering “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”, the Freelancers Union* posted an earlier item that tells us that one place to look is the TV show, Broad City [1].  The article, signed by “Trupo” (which is an insurance company partly owned by the FU), discusses the fictional life of the characters.  (Caveat:  I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of this show myself.)

“The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons.”

These two working women live the real life of a freelancer: many gigs, mostly very short term. Intermittent income, no benefits, little security.

The show plays these challenges for comedy, of course.  The point is that this is slice-of-life comedy, representing the real experience of a lot of workers living in New York City.

The FU concludes, “hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.”

I don’t know how “normative” or “non-traditional” gig working is, will, or should be. But it’s certainly good to see some realistic fiction about working lives.

As I commented earlier, why not a fictional life set in a coworking space?  I have described coworking (and by implication freelancing) as “participatory theater”, in which workers create their own story of the Future of Work.  That sounds like a decent scenario for scripted theater.


  1. Trupo, What Broad City got right about financial insecurity and episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog, January 31, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/31/what-the-show-broad-city-got-right-about-episodic-income/

*Note:  I am a proud member of the FU.

Payne on How to be a Happy And Successful Remote Worker

The “Future of Work” is often touted as a gig economy, and for many jobs, a remote gig economy.  Almost any work that centers on the Internet can be done anywhere. Growing legions of remote workers prove that this is not only feasible, but very productive [1].   And many workers prefer to “phone it in” via the Internet.

(Remote working is not necessarily freelancing or gig working.  Many conventional employers allow some workers to work from home, and there are many geographically distributed collaborations.  On the other hand, many gig workers are expected to provide their own infrastructure and workplace, so they may well work from home.  So, remote working is a very important aspect for most gig workers.)

(I’ll also note that remote working and distant collaboration has been happening since we invented the Internet.  It’s kind of the whole point of the Internet.  So much of this is not really new or unprecedented, except it has become ubiquitous.)

By now it is clear that remote working has its challenges.  Indeed, the isolation of remote working is the key problem that coworking is designed to solve.  Besides finding a coworking community, what should remote workers try to do?

This month, Kevin Payne suggests “7 tips for being a happy and successful remote worker” [3].  He is writing for the Freelancers Union, but the “tips” apply to workers no matter what their contractual arrangements.

What are his tips?

1) Set boundaries
2) Designate a dedicated working area
3) Change things up
4) Make a schedule (and stick to it)
5) Know your priorities
6) Invest in the right tools
7) Don’t forget yourself

The first tip is actually the crux of the matter.  When you work at home, there is no physical separation between “work” and “not work”, and more importantly, between “work” and “home/family/everything else”.  Whatever may be wrong with conventional workplaces—and there are plenty of things to complain about—they definitely are psychologically and physically separated from “home”.

The other tips are mainly about how to set and keep these boundaries.  An important part of this is psychological, hence “know your priorities”.  This also involves at least two sets of priorities—work and not-work—and also two distinct sets of activities.  Hence “a dedicated work area”, a schedule, and the right tools.

These are good tips, for any worker, remote or not.  And there is no one right way to do it, so find your own way.

But even if you have a great gig and a great home office and manage to balance your life with work, you still are working alone.  People are not meant to be alone all the time, and sooner or later most people are unhappy without colleagues and human contact.

This is, of course, one of the big reasons why people join a coworking community.  Coworking is a “respite from our isolation” (a la Klaas, 2014 [2]).  Indeed, Payne suggests joining a coworking space.

“Some remote workers and freelancers work in coffee shops, while others sign up for coworking spaces.”

I will go farther, to point out that the coworking space actually solves many of these other problems.  There is a boundary, it is a dedicated space, it has the right tools—including like-minded workers to actually talk to.

In short, a coworking space is just the thing for remote workers.

So, Bob’s top “tip” for remote working is “find a local coworking community”.  You’ll be happier, healthier, and probably successful.


  1. Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2013.
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  3. Kevin Payne, 7 tips for being a happy and successful remote worker, in Coworkers Union Blog, January 17, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/17/7-tips-for-being-a-happy-and-successful-remote-worker/

Freelancers (and Coworking) in Popular Culture?

This month, the Freelancers Union* asks “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?” [1]  They point out that even in more or less realistic shows, few people identify themselves as “Freelancers”, even in cases where they work as writers and similar gig workers.  Worse, some of the portrayals are wildly unrepresentative of how real freelancers live.  Is anyone surprised that corporate entertainment media is oblivious if not outright hostile toward the lives of real workers?

(In part, there is a semantic issue here.  Actors and Writers generally are gig workers, but they identify with their profession, not with their contractual arrangement.  A thespian is “an Actor”, not “a Freelancer”.  May dramatists just don’t think about “freelancer” as an identity for a character.)

The article hones in on the apparent lack of medical insurance even for characters who get hurt or have a baby.  Huh?  If the only thing you find unrealistic about Sex and the City is that the show doesn’t discuss medical insurance….

Eventually, it becomes clear that the FU is actually advocating their own insurance products, which explains that specific emphasis.  And, yeah, its important, and yeah, I’m glad the FU is on it.

Anyway, the title does actually raise a good point.  Freelancing and Coworking are important work life experiences for a growing number of people, and something that young people should know about because they may want to or have to be part of the gig economy.  So it would be nice to have realistic role models in popular culture—for better or worse.

Personally, I’m not going to watch anything that spends a lot of time worrying about the challenges of health insurance for gig workers.  But why not have a ‘cheers’ set in a coworking space?  Why not have more shows about interesting gig workers, and fewer shows about obnoxious billionaires?

It would be particularly valuable for young people to see and to identify with some good examples of gig workers.  People who have to hustle for gigs, are responsible for delivering their contracts, who constantly learn, and who are good members of a coworking community.  People who more or less successfully balance work and family life.  Etc.  You know–real people.

So, how could this come to be?

Well…the FU surely has within its membership more than enough talent to create such popular fiction in every medium.  It would certainly be apt for freelancers of the FU to tell our own story this way….


*Disclosure:  I am a proud member of the FU.


  1. Freelancers Union, Where are all the freelance characters on TV?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/06/where-are-all-the-freelance-tv-characters/

 

Making It As A Freelancer

The Freelancers Union and GCUC report that one reason that people like freelancing is because you get to work on what you want to work on, when you want, how you want.  Gig workers are free to pick their gigs, and coworkers pick their own work environments.

But gigging is hard, and, frankly, even the glass-half-full surveys of freelancers and coworkers show that the pay is short, and the hours may be long (assuming you can get the work).

Looking closely at the surveys over the years, it is clear that many of the respondents were enthusiastic newbies, happy with their first experiences. (We were all rookies once! : – ))

But I have long questioned how viable gig working will be for the long run, for a whole working lifetime.  (I discuss this in my book, “What is Coworking?“)

For this reason, I was interested to see several posts from experienced freelancers, who have rather more sanguine view of gig working.  It’s not all roses and unicorns.

To be sure, these senseis want people to freelance.  But…they have some important things to tell you.


First of all, Hannah Edmonds posts yet another discussion of time management.  (This is a perennial topic for freelancers and coworkers.)

Everyone has trouble managing their time.  One good thing about working for an organization and having a boss is that these things provide structure and other people to help enforce the structure. However, an independent gig worker is on her own [1].  Edmonds points out the need to structure your gig work, and offers tips on how to do it. This takes self-discipline, which I, for one, am not that good at.


Sensei Tyra Seldon has more tough advice:  freelancing isn’t meant to be free  [3].  In particular, gig workers need to know the value of their work, and need to charge appropriately.  Anyone who has worked with Sensei Seldon knows that she is very clear about terms of payment, and demands appropriate professional levels of compensation.

She tells us that this is “what 10 years of freelancing taught” her:  talk about money clearly and demand to be paid.  Say “no” if necessary.

I’ll note that this is another good thing about working for a conventional organization:  someone else sets the terms and compensation, and there is a contract that defines it.  There is no need to negotiate every piece of work separately, so there isn’t a need to explicitly worry about the value of each piece.

Gig workers have to make demands and get paid.  That’s not all that fun, but it is for sure necessary.


What does this mean?

Sensei Naomi Nakashima tells us that she had to learn “that it’s not enough to love what you do” [2]

It no longer felt like I was getting paid to do something I loved, it felt like I was barely scraping by. I felt underpaid and undervalued (because I was).” (From [2])

What she found is that, however much she liked what she was doing, it was necessary to earn enough to actually live.  She recounts how one of her clients refused a patently absurd low bid from her, and told her “no matter how much you love what you do, if you’re not making enough to live on it, you will end up resenting it.”

Think carefully about this.  She is telling you that getting paid isn’t just necessary for survival, it is necessary for your sanity and morale.

Sensei Nakashima’s suggestions are good advice for any job, freelance or other. I can testify that poor pay and lousy work will definitely make you hate any job, no matter how cool it might seem on paper.

She elaborates:

1) It’s not enough to enjoy what you do – you also have to enjoy the project you’re working on.

2) It needs to do more than just pay you – it needs to be worth your time.

3) It’s not enough to simply work on clients’ projects that you love – they need to help further your career in some way. (summarized from  [2])

I would say that #2 is the crux of all of this.  Freelancing might seem like a great thing, but it really must be worth your time or you’ll never survive.  This isn’t even a matter of money (though Sensei Seldon is right that you need to be paid), it’s a matter of life and death.  You only have so much time, you can’t really throw it away doing things you hate.

I would add a further bit of advice.  My own experience has shown me that the most important thing is who you are working with.  Working with good people is generally worth your time, even if it might not be perfect for other reasons.  (For example, I’ve been very happy doing unpleasant (but important) work with people I really care about.  I’ve also been happy working with good people, even when it didn’t particularly advance my career.)

I think this is one of the reasons why coworking is so valuable to many freelancers.  If you find a good coworking community, everything will be so much better because just showing up and doing your work with good people will be worth your time.


Gig working isn’t easy, and it’s not guaranteed to make you happy.  I doubt that you will get rich (at least not from the gigs).

But these experienced freelancers are here to tell you that it can be a good life, if you are disciplined and take care to do work that is worth your time.

What is Coworking?  It can be an opportunity to work with good people all the time.  And that’s a really good thing.


  1. Hannah Edmonds, How to keep freelance work from eating up your life, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/23/how-to-keep-freelance-work-from-eating-up-your-life/
  2. Naomi Nakashima, How one freelance writer figured out that it’s not enough to love what you do, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/30/why-its-not-enough-to-love-what-you-do/
  3. Tyra Seldon, Pay now or pay later: what 10 years of freelancing taught me, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/17/what-10-years-of-freelancing-taught-me-about-payment/

 

“Freelancing in America” Report, 2019

It’s time for the annual “Freelancing in America” survey from the Freelancers Union*! [2] As in previous years, this is a survey of 6,001 (why not 6,000?) workers. Anyone who report any kind of temporary employment, including moonlighting, is counted as a “freelancer” in this survey. Notably, 28% report that they are full time freelancers.

I have criticized earlier iterations of this survey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), and most of my earlier points apply to this year’s study.

This study estimates there are 50 million freelancer workers in the US (by their expansive definition of “freelancer”), which is up slightly from 2018, and roughly the same as 2017. Similarly, the percentage of “full time” freelancers remains unchanged. Regardless of the headlines, this study shows freelancing is not growing.

I think it is important to view these numbers in the context of the historically high employment rates in the US in the past several years. There have been plenty of opportunities for employment conventional and freelance. In an economic downturn, we can expect the number of “involuntary” freelancers to increase dramatically.

Many of the other findings document the work life of freelancers. Many freelancers work remotely, especially technical and media workers. This location flexibility is desirable for workers, and one of the reasons people choose to freelance.

The report finds median hourly pay of $20 over all, $28 for skilled workers. This is shockingly low, especially when this has to cover overheads, insurance, etc., and even more because most freelancers are not full time.

The survey notes that, even in this hot job market, Freelancers feel insecure, and many are preparing for a future downturn. Like all workers in the US, Freelancers have trouble getting health insurance and have troubles with debt and lack of savings.

For the first time this year, many of the issues raised reflect the reality that a freelancer is operating a small business. A proportion of their time is not billable, and they desire more education and training for the skills needed to operate such a business.

On that last point, I certainly agree. For several years, I have been trying to figure out how such training—and, indeed, awareness of freelance careers—might be introduced in local high schools. Introducing anything to high schools is difficult. Sigh.


Nit Pick: The survey makes the irritating claim that Freelancing amounts to 5% of the GDP (basically estimating the total wages of “freelancers”), which they then compare to “Construction” or “Transportation”. Look, “Freelancing” is a type of employment contract (actually, multiple types), not an “industry”. For that matter, some freelancers work in construction, etc. This is a pointless and misleading number.


The bottom line is, according to this survey, Freelancing has not grown in the past three years. Freelancers say that they like Freelancing, and choose to do it. However, in many sectors, especially media and entertainment, Freelancing seems to be the only option available for workers. And the Freelancing life may be flexible, but the pay is shockingly low, and the future uncertain. In this good economy, work is plentiful, but that can and will change.

This is a distinctly mixed picture, and remember that we are in a moment of peak employment. The next downturn will see gig workers rapidly losing hours and pay, much faster than conventional workers.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The Freelancing In America study shows that the U.S. independent workforce is a political force to be reckoned with, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/03/the-freelancing-in-america-study-shows-that-the-u-s-independent-workforce-is-a-political-force-to-be-reckoned-with/
  2. Upwork and The Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America : A comprehensive study of the freelance workforce. 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/resources/freelancing-in-america/

 

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.