What Defines Freelance Culture?

Aug 18, 2011

sara.JPGI’ve been thinking a lot about “culture” lately, and what the culture of freelancers is. I’ve been reading Margaret Mead’s autobiography, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. As a cultural anthropologist, she helped Americans in the 1960s and 1970s think about our own culture by focusing on Samoan culture – and then used that perspective to help us reflect on ourselves. I believe that freelance culture is about interconnectedness and sustainability. Freelancers need to rely on one another and build informal networks and support systems. And they need to create sustainable careers, communities, and institutions that can support the workforce for the long run. As Margaret Mead used the Samoan culture for perspective, I look back to the American workforce 75 years ago, when manufacturing workers had predictability about how long a job might last and assurance that a job would come with benefits. In contrast, freelancers today have to piece together gigs and projects to fill out their careers, and live in a perpetual state of unpredictability. The good news is that manufacturing workers were able to transform their economy and society by building powerful unions that were the bulwark of the New Deal. We need to take our interconnectedness, nimbleness, and independence and think about what these strengths do for us. We also need to see that there’s a role for government in the solution, like protecting us from unpaid wages, offering loans to capitalize our businesses, establishing a Department of Independent Workers that has the same power as the Departments of Small Business, or updating the tax code to stop over-taxing us. (But I don’t support a society entirely without taxes – this will take us back to the Dark Ages – but the fact remains that freelancers are unfairly double-taxed.) At Freelancers Union, all of our work is driven by the principles that I think define the freelancer culture: interconnectedness and sustainability. For example, Freelancers Insurance Company serves our economic needs by grouping freelancers together for affordable and portable group-rate health insurance, and the Freelancers Union Political Action Committee (PAC) gives us political power to shape our economy and democracy to meet the needs of the new workforce. It’s important for us to recognize that freelancers have a culture so we can leverage its strengths: we are interconnected and networked. We are aware of the earth’s limitations to satisfy endless consumption, and of government’s limitations to provide basic necessities. We need to build our own sustainable institutions to serve our needs, and we must teach and share to perpetuate the freelance culture and livelihood. In other words, we need to start thinking about our lives in terms of new mutualism. Taking that cue, freelancers need to assess what their unmet needs are, develop solutions for how to improve and change society, and then build political power to make those solutions happen. But the first step is to understand and define freelance culture. What are our values, our priorities, our obligations? Looking around at the traditional workforce and the workforces from the past or in other countries, what sets us apart? I hope you’ll share your insights on the culture of freelancers.

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.