No security, no employer benefits, always having to hustle: these downsides of self-employment are well known. But what about the workload?
Much ink has been spilled over the increasing precarity, or independence, of work. Silicon Valley boosters and business-side think tanks hail the 1099 economy for its liberatory potential. Critics argue that it strips workers of their benefits and opens up a new field for potential employer abuses.
In 2015, 15 million people were self-employed (10 percent of the workforce), most of them with no paid employees of their own. Life as a full-time freelancer amounts to a massive shift of responsibility from the employer to the worker. Those who are paid with 1099s get double-tapped on payroll taxes, forced to pony up both the employer’s and employee’s contributions to Social Security and Medicare. That’s more than 15 percent of a person’s income.
On top of that, you receive no healthcare or retirement benefits, no unemployment compensation, and no paid sick leave or vacation days. The entire safety net becomes the sole responsibility of the worker, with no guarantee of additional pay to cover the extra costs.
These negative aspects of freelancing are well known and have been explored thoroughly elsewhere. But there’s another, less reported, cost to being a 1099 employee: your free time evaporates and your personal life suffers the consequences.
I spent the last four years freelancing for a variety of publications before finally landing a staff job. It’s true that if you work freelance full-time, you have the freedom to set your own hours. But that freedom is illusory if you want to have enough money to purchase healthcare, amass savings, establish a degree of retirement security, and keep your toehold in the middle class.
As a freelancer, I always worked more than 50 hours a week, often coming closer to 60, and always put time in on the weekends. Often a lot of it wasn’t even spent on the core tasks of the job like researching, writing, and performing interviews.
To begin with, all the time spent drumming up new work is uncompensated, as is all the time spent invoicing and reminding editors to pay you. Managing your own retirement account, healthcare, and taxes eats into your free time. In addition to costing you more, your dealings with the IRS also grow more complicated. I grappled with at least a dozen 1099s at the end of each year.
As I became a veteran full-time freelancer, happy hour became mostly out of the question. Transcribing interviews trumped heading to the countryside for a break. After spending all day writing and sending emails, communicating with friends online didn’t hold much joy, either. I’m a very social person, but at the end of many work days, I couldn’t muster the energy for the after-work socializing that sustains adult friendships.
The network of relationships I’d built began to shrink. I lost friends both near and far.
I could have scaled back my hours. But in a field that is more precarious than ever, that course of action never seemed plausible. What if one of the publications I relied on for much of my income went out of business, or dramatically cut back? What if I got sick and couldn’t work for a few weeks? What if I want to retire at some point before I die?
An extra 10 or more hours a week to accommodate all this may not sound like such an ordeal in exchange for a degree of freedom. But the goal should be to reduce the hours we must spend away from our loved ones, our communities, and our passions. Most American adults already feel that their time away from their 40-hour work weeks is precious. It hurts to lose 10 to 15 more hours a week.
There isn’t much high-quality data on workloads in the 1099 economy. A 2013 article in The Economist claimed that in the United Kingdom, “[f]reelancers do work longer - around 6% more hours per week than employees,” and noted that they are paid less for their time as well. In a massive study of “alternative work arrangements” released earlier this year—which found that all the net employment growth of the last 10 years occurred in this emergent precarious sector—the authors simply promised more research on work hours in the future.
There is even less research on the social and psychological effects of working full-time in the 1099 economy. Irvin Schonfeld, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York, says that the field of occupational health psychology is interested in the self-employed, but finds it difficult to study them because they are so scattered.
Last year, Schonfeld co-authored a paper on the stresses of the self-employed. The survey of 54 individuals found the two most common stressors were uncertainty about income and brutally heavy workloads. Many of the individuals were beset by anxiety and depression. At the end of the paper, Schonfeld suggests future research into work-life balance to compare those who turn to freelancing out of necessity and those who come to it purely by choice.
“You are in a kind of difficult bind if you are self-employed,” says Schonfeld. “I think there is software available to help with accounting and bookkeeping and taxes … but there are always difficulties in terms of social support.”
I’m never quite sure what to say to people who ask me for advice about the freelance life. There are a few apps and programs you can utilize to rationalize your workload. If you make enough, you can hire an accountant to simplify your taxes.
My experience wasn’t as bad as it could have been in part because I live in Philadelphia, where rents are more reasonable than in very expensive cities like New York or Washington, D.C. Living anywhere beyond the dozen or so super-heated housing markets is a solid idea for a freelancer, but you may lose out on networking with potential employers.
To combat the atomizing nature of the work and the workload, it’s also helpful to live in a dense neighborhood with numerous parks and small businesses that foster social interaction. I can walk to the houses of a half-dozen friends and as many acquaintances, a joy which is very rare in American society and one that made the isolated and overworked life of a freelancer far more tolerable.
I stuck with freelancing because I can’t imagine more rewarding work than journalism. But today, looking back, I get angry just thinking about all the burdens in both money and time that were pushed onto me. More and more Americans are shouldering them, whether by choice or necessity.
It is important that everyone—young people entering the workforce, college career offices, job coaches, and of course, employers—recognize all the burdens that the 1099 economy puts on workers. (I found they only get heavier as you get older, as well.) We should be upfront about the grueling slog of the freelance economy so those who enter it understand that independence may come at a social and financial cost.