Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Temporary insanity

A few weeks back there was an article (“Workers on Tap”) in The Economist that talked about the rise of the temp economy.

Having freelanced for over ten years now, I’m more than happy that there are companies willing to work with contractors, temps, freelancers, “consultants” – whatever they want to call us. At this stage in my career, not having to get up and go to a full-time job has been (mostly) just wonderful.

Not that I’ve taken brilliant advantage of all the free time that comes with trading in a 50 hour + work week plus commuting for what has varied over the years from anywhere between 10 and 40 hours, and an occasional blow-in to see the local clients.

With all that free time, I still haven’t written a novel, turned into a fitness goddess, or become Boston’s Mother Teresa in mufti.

And yet working freelance has generally been a good experience. As I’ve often said: half the income, but twice the life satisfaction. I’m fortunate to have been in a position to go down this path. And that fortune became most apparent when my husband was diagnosed (in late 2011) with the cancer that eventually killed him. If I’d been working full-time, I would have been completely unable to provide the level of support that I did. Nor would I have had the wonderful hang around time that my husband and I were able to enjoy over much of the course of his final illness. Going out for a really nice lunch after a chemo visit might not sound like unalloyed joy, but Jim and I always had fun on these outings, even when, for one type of chemo, we left the infusion center with Jim wearing a pump, and me carrying a rather large, fluorescent green bag that contained the kit I needed to disengage the pump and mail it back when the chemo stopped pumping 48 hours on.

Is it completely weirdo to say that those were actually good times?

Anyway, because I was working freelance, I could juggle my schedule so that I could be there for every chemo session, every doctor’s appointment, every day that required someone around the house 24/7. The one and only major dealio I missed was a CT scan. Jim was fine, he could get himself over to MGH no problem, there would be no results that day, etc. So I didn’t go. Wouldn’t you know that the person sitting next to him in the waiting room was none other than Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox second baseman.

Jim, naturally, got into a very funny conversation with Dustin, which including Jim telling Our Hero that he hoped that the stuff you had to swallow for the scan wouldn’t f him up the same way it did Jim, and that he would be watching that night’s game to check it out. (We did; it didn’t.)

If I had been working full time, I would have had to go out on Family Medical Leave at some point.

Freelancing made things a lot easier.

And yet, after Jim died, not having a full-time job to go back to wasn’t all that great.

Not that I’m not perfectly capable of building the day out of a trip to the hardware store for a light bulb, but I missed having a reason to get out of the house every day. And I missed the companionship: the cups of teas, the gabfests, the quick lunches, the head-clearing walks.

But mostly, freelancing suits me.

That said, I wouldn’t have been happy to have made a career out of it.

For one thing, I met some of my closest friends at work.

If we’d all been temping, that would not have happened.

It was on the job that I picked up the skills I have. And it was on the job that I built the network that is the source of all of my freelance work.

If I’d started out trying to get work doing writing for technology companies, I might have gotten some work. But I suspect it wouldn’t have paid much better than driving sloshy folks around for Uber or picking up dry cleaning for a “client” I met through Task Rabbit.

Of course, these days “on demand” isn’t just for the great unskilled.

Lawyers. Accountants. Programmers. Professionals of all sorts.

I’m sure that this suits the “working model” for many.

Like me, they’re winding down. Or they’re home with the baby. Or they have something else they want to do with their time (like be a performance artist). And, unlike me (knock on wood), many of them aren’t finding their work directly, they’re going through an agency.

Like the moving assembly line, the idea of connecting people with freelances to solve their problems sounds simple. But, like mass production, it has profound implications for everything from the organization of work to the nature of the social contract in a capitalist society...

Risks borne by companies are being pushed back on to individuals—and that has consequences for everybody.(Source: The Economist)

Those who “value security over flexibility..feel justifiably threatened.”

Guaranteed employment for life is certainly way back in the rear view mirror for most of us. (I think that those of us working in the tech sector have been in the white collar vanguard here.) But not knowing from month to month where your work is going to come from will certainly have an impact on whether you’re going to buy a house or start a family.

Easy enough for someone without a mortgage to rave about how great freelancing is…

And then there’s what is perhaps the most terrible aspect of working temp jobs.

People will also have to learn how to sell themselves, through personal networking and social media or, if they are really ambitious, turning themselves into brands. In a more fluid world, everybody will need to learn how to manage You Inc.

So happy I’m not really ambitious. (Too little, too late.)

The idea of having to brand myself?

Just thinking about it gives me temporary insanity.

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