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/

 

Report on Freelancing in NYC 2019

The Freelancers Union* has released a new survey of “Freelancing in New York City” [2].

The headline number is that 34% of workers in NYC “is freelancing”.  Wow!  (That would be over a million workers.)  The study finds that in “media and entertainment” 61% of workers have freelanced in the past year.

The report touts the Big Apple as an especially favorable environment for freelancers, for the same reason as it is favorable for all workers (opportunity, professional networking, etc.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, this is a web survey, which means that it is pretty difficult to assess how representative it might be.  I tend to be skeptical of the reported margins of error, given the format of the survey.  Granted, the target group of the survey is comparatively likely to be reached and sampled by this methodology, but who knows?

This study surveyed 5,000 residents in NYC who work in the greater NYC metro area. Within this NYC worker population, the study looked at those who freelance (N=1728) and media and entertainment workers who freelance (N=432). The study was fielded from March 22, 2019 to April 18, 2019. Margin of error for each audience group are as follows: NYC Workers Overall: ±1.3% at the 95% level of confidence. NYC Freelancers: ±2.3%, NYC Non-freelancers ±1.7%, Media & Entertainment freelancers ±4.7” (From [2])

A more important point is that the definition of “freelancer” seems to be “anyone who reports working freelance at any time during the year”.  This includes people who work exclusively or mainly as independent contractors, but also moonlighters who have a conventional job.  As far as I can tell, the definition of a gig is up to the respondent, and one gig of as little as a few hours might be counted as “freelancing” for this study.  In other studies from this group, the workers who could be considered primarily freelancing are considerably fewer than the most inclusive definition, so the headline about “one third of workers” is misleading.

Nevertheless, the findings about the “media and entertainment” sector are plausible.  These industries have always been filled by part time and independent workers, so in this sense nothing has changed in this supposedly “new” gig economy.

The survey found that the responding freelancers are worried about their irregular work and income, and also about late or non-payment. If these workers can’t get enough work in this economy, then there certainly should be very real concern for what will happen in the next downturn.

One interest point the report emphasizes is that many freelancers indicate that the choose to freelance.  (This is a pretty important ideological point for the FU.)  But, if two thirds of “media and entertainment” workers are freelancers, it sounds like there isn’t all that much choice about it—you freelance or you don’t work.  Perhaps the emphasis on how much freelancers prefer freelancing is a bit of cognitive dissonance, putting forward the positives for what must be done out of necessity.  Or perhaps contemporary freelancing is a “better way” to do what desperate screenwriters have always done.

What does this survey mean to the rest of us, who are not in NYC?   In other parts of the world, I bet the freelance life is pretty similar, if not as trendy as the Big Apple.

The sixty four million dollar question is whether you need to actually live in NYC, or not to succeed.  Freelancing or not, NYC has huge opportunities, but you’ll have to scramble to make the most of them.  Perhaps freelancing is particularly suited to this scramble, in any case it certainly is the way many workers live.

Lots of other surveys show that many freelancers work remotely, which means that it should be possible, in principle, to participate in the NYC markets while living back home.  So why move to the city?

I’ll note that this survey apparently doesn’t sample workers who live elsewhere but “work in NYC”.  I suspect there are a fair number of them, and that’s probably a bigger story than whether they are freelancers or not.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The first Freelancing in NYC study shows that 1 in 3 NYC workers is freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/09/10/freelancing-in-nyc-2019/
  2. Freelancers Union, Upwork, and New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Freelancing in New York City 2019. Freelancers Union, New York, 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/documents/36/Freelancing_in_New_York_Report_2019.pdf

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