Once upon a time, a "gig" – a one-time, short-term assignment or project – was something reserved for musicians or models. Those days are long gone. A growing number of Americans are choosing to avoid the regular 9-to-5 routine, working for The Man; instead, they work-on-demand for firms that employ them on a freelance or independent contractor basis.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, today’s workers can undertake freelance gigs for a wide range of industries, from just about anywhere on earth. Sites like Upwork and Etsy empower short-term “giggers” to write copy, design websites and even sell their wares, on their own time, at their discretion. Meanwhile accommodation sites like Airbnb and Onefinestay enable people to rent out their digs as an additional income stream. And Uber empowers virtually anyone (with a car) to turn their vehicle into a metered cab.
Mix and match your gigs, and voilà: You’ve got the ultimate balanced work lifestyle. In theory (assuming you have a laptop and reliable WiFi access), you could “gig” from a mountainside perch, a log cabin, or your own living room (even in your pajamas). Freelancing also comes with the thrill of not knowing exactly what’s around the corner, but being open to plenty of other opportunities awaiting on the horizon (just past that glorious sunset you get to enjoy, because you’re not stuck in some office). Doesn’t it all just sound liberating?
With the exploding gig economy (aka the freelance economy) comes a monumental decision: to freelance or not to freelance. To many, it might sound like a logical lifestyle choice (if not the only way to go), but before shrugging off salaried employment altogether, it’s time for a reality check.
There’s much more to freelancing than flexible hours and being your own boss. One of the biggest pluses of full-time employment (and drawbacks of doing gigs) are employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance, 401(k) plans, sick days and paid vacation time. A staff job often comes with all these perks, while freelancers must fend for themselves on all counts. Forget about paid holidays (unless you’re able to work on a laptop under a palm tree), or taking sick days, as no company or tech platform will pay you for getting nothing done.
You’ll also have to manage your taxes yourself, including the self-employment tax (see 7 Ways To Avoid Self-Employed Tax Penalties). And if you’d actually like to start saving for retirement, or for a major purchase like a home, you’ll have to figure out how to on your own (or by reading Retirement Planning for the Self-Employed and 5 Steps To Qualify For A Mortgage If You're Self-Employed).
Flexibility vs. Security
For some, the idea of working day in, day out at the same old desk sounds like hell on earth. For others, the financial security of having full-time employment is pretty much mandatory. The freelancing lifestyle can indeed be liberating, and as your own boss, you don't have to answer to someone else – other than your clients, of course. Which brings up the problem of getting work in the first place. With no one assigning it to you, you have to hustle to secure gigs yourself. And in the case of digital platforms, many of them pay peanuts. They’re also not something you can fully rely on for regular income. For instance, Airbnb income is dependent upon bookings; and revenue from Etsy is dependent upon making actual sales. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t make anything, so gigging can be risky business.
Per-Gig Pay vs. Paycheck
One of the major advantages to full-time employment is knowing that you have a regular paycheck coming in without fail, every pay cycle – aka financial security, which can be crucial for budgeting and saving. This simply isn't the case in the world of freelancing. As a freelancer, you bill as you earn – or are remunerated as the gigs are completed or products are sold – however frequently (or infrequently) that is. So possibly the biggest challenge facing freelancers is ensuring there are enough jobs/gigs lined up to generate the cash flow you need to survive.
How old you are bears considerable influence over which direction you might take. For instance, if you’re fresh out of college, chances are you don’t have the financial safety net to risk relying on gigs, nor enough “on the job” expertise to embark on a freelance career. And if that’s the case, you’d possibly be better off exploring gigs and freelance opportunities on the side, in addition to a day job. Becoming a freelancer is like starting a business, so you need to be up for the responsibility that comes with it.
If on the other hand, you’ve been in the working world for a couple of years or more; have acquired solid skills, identified a services niche and established contacts with individuals or organizations who can potentially provide you with work, then you could have the foundation to establish solid gig workflow and a successful freelance career.
The Loneliness Factor
Freelancing can be a lonely profession. It generally lacks the social interaction and bustle of an office job, and you have no colleagues to speak of. In fact, a laptop often becomes a freelancer’s best friend. You could consider sharing an office with someone else, or renting a space in a co-working site, but this costs money. Then, of course, there's missing out on gatherings like holiday office parties. Unless you throw one of your own, you can forget about those altogether because your clients probably won't invite you to theirs. One other solution can be to become active in professional organizations where you can meet others in your field, both consultants and fulltime employees.
On the flip side, if you're really more of a hermit, freelancing is a great way to work without being forced to spend hours with others in meetings or trying to come up with something to say while you're gathering around the coffee machine.
The Bottom Line
Young adulthood is the perfect time to take calculated risks – such as a freelancing. Being at the time of life you're most likely to be young, healthy and without dependents lessens the need for employer-provided benefits such as major medical insurance and a steady paycheck. And if you're really good at what you do, you may be able to take professional leaps it could take much longer to achieve in a structured office environment.
If the entrepreneurial call is too loud to ignore, it is possible to forge a great work/life balance, and even carve a lucrative career with a lot of commitment and the right mindset. However, unless you’re established enough (or have a big enough safety net) to throw caution to the work winds, it could pay to play it safe with a day job, and experiment with a few gigs on the side. If they take off, great! And if not, at least you’ll still be able to pay the bills.