The "Gig" Economy. That's what Daily Beast editor Tina Brown calls our new, recession-based economic environment. Instead of full-time jobs with benefits, legions of underemployed people -- even high-earning-potential "creative class" types -- are turning to part-time and freelance work out of frustration and impatience. CNN reports that, as of 2009, 26% of the U.S. working population report themselves as freelancers - up from 19% in 2006. The downside? Lack of benefits (especially healthcare) and inconsistent pay. The upside, of course, is that you get to be your own boss (for the most part).
Like it or not, as cost-effective for businesses as contract work is, it's becoming our new reality. Whether you're considering a full-time transition over to freelance work, or just need to get by until your next office or staff job, here are some tips to help you "retrain" for the new, gig-based economy:
Take Classes In Your Field
In the Gig Economy, you're no longer an employee -- not really, anyway. In many cases, you're your own boss. That means you're an independent businessperson, and you need to be competitive. Highly specialized training in your intended field can only help you, so scope out classes at your local community class (business, writing, digital media, and web design are popular choices), look for free workshops, or, at the very least, try to find a mentor that can aid you in your freelance quest.
Get an Office
If your gig requires you to get up and go to an office every day, then you can disregard this step. Otherwise, try to organize a space in your home -- or rent out cheap space elsewhere -- in which you can be productive without interruption. Usually, your own house has too many distractions: the fridge, the TV, unopened novels laying around on the counter, children running around, etc. An office of any kind (equipped with all of the materials you need, of course) will force you to focus on the task at hand, and boost your productivity.
Networking is a word we all hate -- but it's a way of life for the freelancer. Networking includes asking your friends, and your friends' friends, about possible opportunities in your field. It means printing out professional-looking business cards and distributing them to interested parties at conferences. It means joining professional groups in your area and actually going to the meetings. It also means, in the world of Web 2.0., getting your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts in pristine order -- and setting up a website for your portfolio. Timid networkers don't get anywhere, so don't be afraid to get out there and market yourself.
Subscribe to Relevant Trade Magazines/Read Books
There's few things worse than an uninformed freelancer. Without the benefit of co-workers and lively office environments, it can be hard to "keep up" in your field without constantly reading about the goings-on in your industry (especially if your freelance work is in a highly technical, rapidly-changing field.) Trade magazines, well-reviewed books, and e-newsletters are your friend: They'll give you a leg up on your less-informed competition.
The Gig Economy requires you to be self-sufficient. You'll need to save for retirement and purchase a health care plan -- all on your own. Get a Simplified Employee Pension (the self-employment, tax-deductable retirement account) and get a health plan through a professional organization like the Freelancers Union. Check if your state has subsidized plans for certain income brackets, and, if you don't work entirely from home, try to seek out part-time jobs that offer health benefits (Starbucks, for example.)
Document Your Time and Manage Your Money
Because many freelancers are newly self-employed -- and therefore aren't careful with their money -- they are at high risk of being swindled by clients. Just because you aren't a full-time staff employee doesn't mean your time isn't valuable. Document every block of time you work in a spreadsheet. Save your checks and receipts. Record every incidence of correspondence with a client. Make multiple copies of contracts and keep them safe. Why? A) So you can report your taxes correctly and B) So that if a client refuses to pay you, or pays you a different amount than what was originally agreed upon, you can take legal action and have plenty of evidence to back you up.
So there you have it: Living, and thriving, in the Gig Economy. For some it may not be ideal, but as a temporary fix, at least, you can take steps to make it less painful. And for those seeking full-time freelance work? Have fun being your own boss.