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Lila Nordstrom

Lila Nordstrom

Posted: February 1, 2010 01:42 PM

The Freelance Generation

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I've always considered myself a member of the housing boom generation -- the generation of people who knew how to flip a house before we had even graduated from high school. Recently, the housing bust has robbed that designation of meaning, but with the slowing pace of the economy, we've gained another: just call us the freelance generation. We'll work for pay. Any pay. No insurance necessary. Three months only is fine. Did you want a beverage with that?

20-somethings seemed to be headed for a relatively smooth ride in life while the economy was still strong. Companies looking for bright young workers were on our college campuses begging soon-to-be graduates to sign up with promises of future wealth (while playing down the interim misery these boring desk jobs were sure to cause). These young-person-friendly jobs were mostly in the finance and other related sectors, and their draw was the promise of outstanding monetary rewards and status just for sticking around and (as we now know), not doing a whole hell of a lot.

But with no unions to protect us and no job security in the offing, the economic crash didn't just cause recent entrants into the workforce to move upwards more slowly than our predecessors. Depending on the economic climate and the length of the next job, we are now both upwardly and downwardly mobile. Our gigs are short, our money comes in small bursts, and no employer is promising to stand by us if our positions disappear.

Freelancing used to be primarily the domain of people between jobs, but with our fickle job prospects, we're somewhere in the between category even when we are working. One year we're i-banking. The next year, economic collapse and hello, Starbucks (one of the few jobs that actually does provide insurance). And then a great interim VP position. Then an assistant position working for somebody...well...a lot like ourselves. According to The Economist, even recent law and business school graduates are having an alarmingly difficult time finding work and are often told, once they do find a position, that their starting date will be some vague time in the future. Once their jobs do start, of course, their future is no more secure. Last year was one of the worst years for lay-offs at major legal firms in recent memory.

Freelancing in and of itself s not a revolutionary concept. There have always been freelancers in previous generations, and many of them used the freedom it provided to take jobs they enjoyed and found fulfilling. Those people have also, however, seen the drawbacks of this type of employment grow over the years, with the rise in health care costs, social security in constant peril, and operating expenses growing rapidly because of deregulation in the fuel and housing markets. Like many of my generation, older freelancers they have been downwardly mobile of late.

As somebody who primarily works in a field dominated by self-employed people (television and commercial production), I know how important labor protections are for the wandering work pool. Those of us looking to move up in the entertainment industry deal with the dark side of freelancing for years on our way in - the unpaid long hours, the abrupt dismissals, the lack of health coverage, the fact that our salaries are not guaranteed from job-to-job and that often moving up means taking a lower paying job in the present. The weaknesses of this system, however, are why Hollywood remains one of the few industries still dominated by unions. It needs organizations to protect its labor pool because, while everybody has a skill, nobody has guaranteed employment, a guaranteed salary, guaranteed insurance, or the hope of a pension without the power of collective bargaining.

The dotcom generation a decade before mine was the first to really suffer from the downsides of a scattered labor force en mass. Everybody was served coffee at a Starbucks by at least one former dotcom-er millionaire in the 90s, and we should have learned something from it. There is no reason to think that this new organization of labor, the wandering workforce, has to destroy our future security. However, America's middle-class, as well as the benefits that accrued to it like the ability to buy homes, obtain credit cards, go to the doctor, and retire, were all built on stable long-term employment. If we want to move into a world of contingent, short-term work, those guarantees need to come from somewhere else. Unfortunately, in the current downwardly spiraling economy, we have no health insurance policy to fall back on, few labor protections mandated, and are using taxpayer money to bail out the guys that were instrumental in getting rid of job security to begin with.

My generation will work differently than those before it, but we still will need the same basic things: roofs over our heads, doctors we can afford, a retirement plan that will buy us more than cat food, and the chance to be upwardly mobile. It is crucial that, in the face of this economic downturn, we create strong social programs to protect us the way that long-term employers and New Deal-era social programs protected our parents and grandparents. The fact that even basic changes to health care legislation consistently cause complete legislative gridlock at the federal and state level is completely unacceptable. Our Congressmen, Senators, and yes, our President, must figure out a way to push legislation through despite the consistent threat of a filibuster. Improving the health care system is only one of many steps we must take to protect Americans in this newly scattered economy.