I’m lucky enough to have an amazing group of friends whom I’ve known since kindergarten or thereabouts. We grew up in a small town on Long Island. On a rare “girls night out” last week, I met them for dinner in Manhattan and, while we caught up and had some good laughs, marveled at what they’ve all accomplished. They include a high-ranking lawyer for the federal government, a top insurance industry executive, a senior telecommunications expert, an ad agency executive turned nurse, and a librarian who’s embraced the latest techno trends in her industry. They’ve juggled careers with a lot of other things, from raising children and helping out with aging parents to heavy-duty volunteering.
These are the kind of friends who are almost family, because we’ve known each other so long, and there are no pretenses, the way there might be at a college reunion. As I listened to the latest on what was going on in everyone’s life, it hit me that I was currently the only one who did not have a traditional job, the kind that comes with a steady paycheck or healthcare and benefits. Nor does my husband, who runs his own business. And, as my friends talked about their plans for the future, it struck me that, living without the relative safety net that big employers offer (even in today’s turbulent economy) means a very different type of life in 21st Century America than earning a paycheck within the world of traditional work.
Freelancing doesn’t offer bad future, just a different one. In my own case, my husband and I make a good living, can afford to live in a town with great schools, and manage to pay our ridiculously high health insurance premiums somehow. I have lots of time to spend with my children. We’ve gravitated toward friends whose lives are more about creating, building and giving back than accumulating material possessions, so there’s little social pressure to live beyond our means.
But we face a future where the only financial security we have as a couple is ourselves and our ability to work really hard–often every day of the week–and save. In fact, our present reality comes with very little security, either, in the traditional sense. In corporate or government jobs, you get the same paycheck every week, even if you’ve been less productive than usual because, for instance, you’re feeling burned out after a big project. Not so in freelancing. And there are no sick days or maternity leave. There’s no protection against unemployment. There’s no big entity (as far as I know) to help freelancers stay on track financially, by offering a 401(k) plan or pension. While there are freelancers’ groups that push for our interests, their negotiating clout pales by comparison to that of corporate America or big unions, so we get ignored by politicians, for the most part.
So, even though on the surface it looks like we’re part of the American mainstream–a married, working couple with four children, living in a New Jersey suburb–it hit me that actually, we’re really not living like a lot of our neighbors and friends. In choosing a life where we have the freedom to set our own rhythms and priorities, we’ve become part of the fringe, with all that entails. I think it means accepting that there’s a lot more planning–financial and otherwise–that we freelancers have to do on our own–and not letting that legwork detract from the very real joys of independence.