With the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, and the post-recession job market becoming increasingly unstable, part-time or freelance work is becoming more of the norm among many Americans (Elmore and Massey 109). One of the most prevalent jobs is in online freelance writing, which can be performed in a variety of capacities for all number of clients – from online article writing to advertising copy to a number of other contexts. Online freelance writers are a form of independent contractors who typically work from home or a space of their choosing, are self-employed, and work for private clients or for writing services based on demand, pay and availability (Kingston et al. 66). Most freelance writers either use it as a part-time job to supplement their existing income, while others utilize it as a full-time career, using the Internet and similar services to cultivate new and continued clients who will pay them to contribute needed content as desired.
While the incredible flexibility and uncertain job climate of freelance writing online has its own drawbacks, including a comparative plateau of advancement, Kallenberg’s criteria for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs gives online freelance writing a qualified classification as a “good job.” Because of the increasing mobilization of work in the 21st century, and a greater ability for individuals to earn comfortable incomes while being self-employed, an examination of the sociology of work of online freelance writing is a valuable subject to investigate.
Online Freelance Writing and the Contemporary Labor Market
In many ways, the online self-employed freelancer is the epitome of what Kalleberg refers to in Good Jobs, Bad Jobs as polarized and precarious employment (15). Because of the demolition of the social contract between employers and employees, online freelancers work in a secondary labor market which offers no real job ladder or opportunities for promotion, as well as “low-wage employment and the disproportionate presence of minorities and immigrant workers” (Kalleberg 32). Within the polarization of ‘good jobs’ and ‘bad jobs,’ Kalleberg’s definition of the job quality of freelance writing would absolutely fall more into the ‘bad jobs’ category, given the looser connection between employees and employers, lack of job security, work intensification and more (16).
Educational qualifications for freelance writing are very slim, as no prior education is required to begin working in freelance writing. Individuals of all manner of educational levels and work experience are able to begin careers within this industry, making the barrier to entry extremely low (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Most freelance writers have a bachelor’s degree education, but self-employment makes job requirements extremely low; that being said, a basic level of skill is typically required to find at least moderate success as a freelance writer (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Education and age are still incredibly powerful predictors of salary for freelance writers, as those with the most education and who are of a moderate age (but not past middle-age) usually achieve the strongest level of income (Kingston et al. 96).
Job availability and working conditions are highly dependent on a number of social and economic forces. First and foremost, the 2008 recession in the United States has contributed significantly to the polarization of work and the increased call for freelancing as a viable alternative to receiving gainful employment (Kelleberg 9). As a result, the labor market has become somewhat restructured into freelance work, an increasingly populated market with a wide range of job quality depending on clients, skill and work ethic (127). Freelancing and independent contracting is incredibly polarized, as temporary work is used “for high- as well as low-skilled jobs,” shifting the risk from the employer to the employee (i.e. the freelancer), who must impress multiple clients or they do not get a steady revenue stream (127).
The number of jobs available in a given niche or area of expertise can fluctuate daily, and most freelance writers have a difficult time maintaining a steady work stream without working through a company or by cultivating a cabinet of regular, loyal clients (Kingston et al., 2013). Another persistent concern is the issue of payment, as it is comparatively easier for clients to refuse or otherwise forego payment for freelance writers, who have little recourse without the resources of a large company behind them (Kingston et al., 2013). Even then, the level of pay can fluctuate from writer to writer, and client to client, as most freelancers are forced to bid low rates in order to secure clients – situations like these can often lead to instances where clients desire work that is of very high quality but pays less than $10 an hour (Kelleberg 128). The growth of low-wage jobs has resulted in freelance writers focusing chiefly on getting the bare minimum of their needed results by paying as little as they have to (Kelleberg 128).
Working conditions are somewhat more comfortable for freelance writers, as work hours are flexible and writers can work from home or customize their own work environment. However, there are some disadvantages, as job insecurity can lead to stress, and the unregulated nature of work may mean that freelance writers feel ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as they continually look for work. Furthermore, the lack of pension, sick leave, bonuses or health insurance provided by a third party (the freelancer is in charge of all of those things) can contribute to the overall stress that comes with freelancing (Kingston et al., 2013). Segmentation Within Online Freelance Writing
Given the flexible and inexact nature of freelance writing as an occupation, self-reporting is a necessity when recording freelance writer statistics, making it difficult to get accurate assessments of exact demographics. However, there are certain trends and segments that can be reliably found within this market. Many freelance writers belong to the ‘creative class,’ who are a social group mostly dedicated to artistry, entertainment and media, who use freelance writing as a means to subsidize their free time so they can commit it to creative pursuits (which are typically not their primary source of income).
In terms of gender, age and racial characteristics, freelancing is often a gendered type of work, with most freelance writers being women between the ages of 30 and 50 years of age (Gandia, 2012). While many workers in America are of American descent, the global nature of the freelance writing market allows for a wider variety of nationalities and descents to be factored into the overall writing workforce – many freelance online writers working on copywriting and search engine optimization (SEO) article writing are of native African or Indian descent (Reeves and Hamilton, 2014). Due to the often low standards of online article writing, as the goal is chiefly to secure a certain level of SEO to promote the website they are writing the article for, companies and clients will hire non-native English writers to provide work whose quality is irrelevant for much less money (Cohen, 2012). In this way, it can be difficult for skilled American workers to achieve steady work, as clients would rather pay less for a greater number of poorly-written articles that only serve to provide backlinks for the client’s own website.
Job Quality in Online Freelance Writing Examining online freelance writers from the metrics of Kalleberg’s assessment of good jobs and bad jobs, there are many advantages to the procession. Freelance self-employed writers enjoy an average pay of $55,940 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015), which is a modest and comfortable income. Some of the most positive elements of online freelance writing includes a tremendous amount of control the worker has over their work activities – freelance writers are typically self-employed, meaning many of them work from home and can set their own hours (Elmore and Massey 114). Because they can control the amount of work they are assigned to do and not do, as most online writers work from a case-by-case basis, freelance writers have the option of taking as much time off as they wish, and scheduling their own hours to provide the work-life balance that they would ideally prefer. This level of flexibility in scheduling and addressing non-work issues is completely controlled by freelance writers, thus making this particular profession ideal for those who prefer autonomy and freedom in their work style. Furthermore, as they work for private clients, freelance writers are in complete control over when a job ends or they would like to not work with a client any further. This level of flexibility is primarily what chiefly motivates freelance writers to pursue their career within this field.
There are several ‘bad job’ elements to freelance writing, however, primarily related to the sheer competitiveness of the field and its resulting instability. Because the freedom and autonomy of the field is so attractive, and the barrier to entry is so low, freelance writing is a very sought-after and competitive market. To that end, it is difficult for many freelance writers to gain enough employment to work full-time in the position with sufficient pay to make a living; job instability in freelancing makes the possibility of going weeks or months without work a distinct possibility (Elmore and Massey 114).
Fringe benefits of most ‘good jobs’ include health insurance and pension benefits; however, the increased polarization of the global workforce has led to more people freelancing, thus leading companies to provide fringe benefits to fewer people (Kelleberg 130). Because of the lack of job security and benefits afforded to those who work for themselves, there is a greater burden on the freelancer to pay their own taxes, seek out their own work, and make contacts and network on their own. To that end, the increased autonomy of self-employment comes with greater responsibility to handle the minutiae of their business, leading to the possibility of greater stress and job insecurity in the long run (Bornstein, 2011).
Examining the plight of the freelance writer from a Marxist perspective, the role of writing and cultural work (which is the chief output of freelance writers) is placed into sharp relief. Cultural work is unique work, which is “radically different from other kinds of work, removed from traditional labour-capital antagonisms” (Cohen 2012, 141). The aforementioned instability and lack of recourse from clients and employers makes the freelance world sufficiently precarious: “stepping out of an employment relationship (or being denied one, as is rapidly becoming the norm) does not mean an escape from exploitation” (142). Because the cultural value of things like writing can be difficult to quantify and place value on, it is much easier for freelance writers to be taken advantage of within the modern capitalist economy (143).
While freelance writers “seem removed from the capitalist labour process,” and therefore it appears as though it can be a preferred method of removing oneself from the restraints of corporate employment, this can often actually contribute to the continuation of capital (Cohen 2012, 147). Rather than taking an interest in ‘human resources,’ corporations can instead seek the assistance of low-paid workers they do not have to pay benefits to, or commit to in the long term. This makes it much easier for freelance workers to be exploited in the modern market, which can often undercut the perception of freedom that freelancing often provides. As a result, job insecurity is high in freelance writers, as corporate restructuring has made it so that companies are less willing to cultivate skills and loyalty in workers, forcing individuals to invest in themselves rather than benefit from the investment of a corporation that job security would provide (Kelleberg 138).
Conclusion and Future Implications As the job market becomes increasingly polarized, and the prevalence of the Internet makes it easier for individuals to work from home and set their own hours, the number of people starting and flourishing in careers in online freelance writing is sure to increase in the coming years. At the same time, this also may lead to an increased saturation of the market, given the low barrier to entry, thus bringing down prices and making it harder for writers to make a living by securing sufficient numbers of clients. The job outlook for 2022 is estimated to be a 3% increase from the number of freelance writers that existed in 2012 (129,100), but this is thought to be a slower than average increase (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). To that end, there is a prospective plateauing of available work and an increased level of competition within the field, thus further complicating the chances that freelance writers can achieve a stable amount of work.
In spite of this uncertain outlook, there are many advantages to freelance writing that offers modern workers in the 21st century a welcome respite from the deeply-polarized nature of the job industry. The increased flexibility and low overhead and barrier to entry allows for individuals to easily enter the industry, freeing people from the traditional notions of job quality that have existed until recent years (Kelleberg 9). The increased role of information technology in self-employment opens up access to profitable jobs to any number of freelance writers, expands potential audiences and client bases, and also allows for instantaneous and mobile performance of one’s duties. To that end, there are many subtle advantages to a field that is otherwise highly competitive and unstable, allowing what is erstwhile referred to as a ‘bad job’ to quickly become a ‘good job’ under new definitions.
Perhaps the most fundamental and positive changes that could happen to freelance writers in this new job market is an organized push for negotiating writers’ rights for freelance cultural labor (Cohen 2011, 119). Because of the massive segmentation and alienation of freelance writers among their community, it has been difficult for these workers to organize in order to effectively collectively bargain for better working conditions and pay (121). As these workers do not “work for a single employer or in the same location,” this isolation and its subsequent fluidity keeps most freelancers apart from each other, if not in direct competition for jobs (122). However, the prospect of professional associations and other types of organizing could provide avenues for freelance writers to begin asserting themselves once more in the workplace, securing greater job prospects and offering a better sense of job security in the long run.
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