The Problem with Freelancing - Millenial Problems Edition
Freelancing is the BEST Job
Most of us millennials absolutely love the internet, and for good reason! We spend most of our time hooked up to the web and many of us even work in jobs that only exist because of the internet, and at least in our household I can’t begin to tell you how true that is. I work as a social media freelancer for an organization in another country and my flat mate works as an online game streamer. Pretty awesome, right?
In today’s world we can work from anywhere and our employers (or followers or viewers) can likewise be anywhere. Essentially it means that if I want to I can work straight from bed in my PJs all day! Once again, pretty awesome, right? But once you find yourself working for the ninth consecutive day still in your PJs from bed, you may start to wonder if freelancing is really all that it’s cracked up to be. I mean spending a day in PJs is always awesome, but spending a life in PJs, in bed and married to your computer sounds frighteningly close to depression.
So where does that leave us in this big mesh of globe spanning wired connections where a huge part of our daily connections are only over the web? Because while the internet is enabling both me and my flat mate to work on something that we love to do, it also means that the both of us mostly stay within the confines of our respective 20 square meters staring at our screens. And with our chosen professions there is an inherently millennial problem that we seem to face – loneliness, isolation and the uncertainty of our future.
“Kids These Days” – More for Less
According to Malcom Harris, author of “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials”, millennials face a new culture of increased competition, increased isolation, extreme individualism and increased economic insecurity. Harris looked at the productivity pay gap (also known as the rate of exploitation), which has been increasing steadily since the 1970s and the clear result of the statistics was that people are working more – longer, harder, more productively – but receiving less. For Harris this is a defining shift in our society and a defining feature of the labor market that we as millennials have entered: a market which demands as much as possible for as little as possible. And for us to thrive in this economy, we have had to entrench these ideals into ourselves.
Harris points out that we take on the cost of competing on the job market ourselves, whether that be student loans, managing ourselves as freelancers, doing contract work, learning new skills or taking on internships - even education has become first and foremost preparation for the job market. Meanwhile our ingrained millennial sense of individualism means that we live inside a world where everything is about competition. To quote Harris, the division and competition amongst employees allows corporations to squeeze more out of us, while making us more replaceable as we become unable to tackle problems as a united force.
The basic premise of capitalism that we have all signed on to is of course that the market forces us to adapt to be more competitive, but what is the human toll that this takes when competition has become not only competition for employment, but instead our very existence is a competition of who has the best human capital - when every life choice is made to be more for less? In an economy that is heavily web reliant and more “social”, personality becomes a commodity on the market - it is not only our talents that we “brand”, but ourselves. Though the picture Harris paints is heavily based on the situation in the US, as the US is a main driving economic force in the world, this picture has to some extent have global outreaches. So how do we relate to the world Harris envisions here in Finland?
Recently I received a letter from KELA that seemed to change my perspective on life - that letter which I had been of course expecting, but which nevertheless came as a shock as it heralded the end of an era. The tiny little black letters barely stretching onto two lines seemed inadequate to proclaim such a dramatic change of status. “You have used up your last month of ‘opintotuki’ and thus you will receive your last month of student aid in February.” I have already worked alongside my studies to support myself for some time, so I was not reliant on the money. Receiving this news was scary not because of the financial implication that I would no longer receive 250 euros a month, but for a completely other reason.
Working as a freelancer means that the amount of income I receive is directly based on the amount of work I do. And while the amount of available work has been more than enough so far, this little note of two lines from KELA was letting me know that my one and only reliable, steady source of income was now gone. If I were to suddenly get sick or run into other issues that would hamper my ability to work temporarily, I would have no back-up plan, no safety net anymore. For someone with zero cents in savings (and more student loan than I am happy with) the situation is uncomfortable at best. And while good monetary planning is a part of adulthood for everyone, the increase in insecurity for a freelancer does seem to weigh on my mind as all expenses must be known well in advance as compensation may arrive even months later.
From Internship to Internship ?
Though freelancing is uncertain, another option many graduating students face is finding themselves in barely paid internships that can last for indeterminable lengths of time, and which may or may not end with employment with the corporation that interned them. The attitude climate in Finland recently especially has tended towards the assumption that internships are a must for students to get employment. In my own experience internships have mostly been a way for organizations and corporations to hire cheap staff, which can then be replaced with new cheap staff. Even after managing a big level project for nearly half the money I should have received in an unofficial “internship”, another company we had cooperated with reached out to me only to offer… an unpaid internship for a chance to possibly gain employment with them in the future, though I had already more than proved my merits. Similar stories are unfortunately common among students, who have had to accept intern positions that pay prices a quarter of the sum that should be paid and which last longer than any “learning on the job” should last.
So it would seems we are at least ticking the boxes of working more for less, facing more insecurity and (to a much smaller degree than in the US of course) we are increasingly taking on the costs of competing on the market ourselves. But have we in fact become human capital? And are we being driven further away from each other through competition and individualism? Is loneliness the defining feature of our generation?
A cradle of Human Capital
For some time now I’ve watched as my flat mate steadily grows her own stream community and games her way to the top. Watching from the sidelines it has become clear to me, how much of what she sells is not just gaming. Her selling point is entertainment and a sense of community. To be a streamer, YouTuber, social media influencer or public persona you have to brand yourself – who you are and what you do become the main assets of your career. We measure ourselves not only on what our educational merits are, but on subjective factors like looks, interesting-ness, humor or coolness. This isn’t restricted to only public personas either. In our daily lives the content or even the non-presence of your social media lets people “know” just what kind of a person you are before you have even met them. Certainly at least in these content driven professions we have learned to brand our human capital to profit, and it would seem that to an extent this leaks into our daily lives and other professions.
As we are being driven more and more towards an “entrepreneurial” attitude in all working life, and as jumping between companies becomes more common, we aren’t being held together by working life communities in the same way as before. Come back to that same 20 square meters where I sit day in and day out, working, sleeping, studying, scribbling this here article – five meters to the right of me is the next little 20 sqm box where my fellow millennial sits in similar isolation. Maybe today we will high five in the kitchen as we pass with our headphones on, projecting our online human capital into the digital universe somewhere out there.