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Freelancing in a Recession: Can you Slash Your Way Out of It?

I got an email from a friend of a friend the other day asking me for advice about how to jump-start a freelance writing career. She’d written...

I got an email from a friend of a friend the other day asking me for advice about how to jump-start a freelance writing career. She’d written some fiction and gotten an MFA along the way, but was now fund-raising for a non-profit and feeling…well, kinda empty.

“There’s not enough time for me to do what I love,” she complained. “I want to dedicate myself to my writing.” But she wanted to know if it was really feasible…i.e. could one really earn a living as a freelance writer? “I like being able to buy myself a new pair of shoes every once in awhile,” she confessed. “I don’t like to stress about money all the time.”

I didn’t know what to tell her. I wanted to give her my usual spiel about how great it is to freelance:  the flexibility to set your own hours, the freedom to do what you love, the ability to wear your pajamas to work.

But I’d also just finished reading Emily Bazelon’s sobering analysis in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about self-employment in today’s economy. According to Bazelon, while the number of self-employed workers increased by 27 % between 1995 and 2005,  the current recession has hit this segment of the labor market particularly hard. There is both greater supply (due to the rise in the number of unemployed people willing to compete for such jobs) and less demand (at least in freelance-friendly service sector jobs like tutoring and personal fitness). Not such a pretty picture.

Of course, if the jobless rate is, in fact, tapering off, then perhaps things will look rosier in the future for those of us in the freelance world. More likely, however, and even if things do improve, freelancers will have to find new ways of blending different careers in order to make ends meet.

I’ve written before about Marci Alboher’s concept of “slash careers” as a way of enabling people with multiple interests to realize all of their professional dreams at once (see her book One Person, Multiple Careers for the full story). But Alboher has also written about slashing by necessity – how to add in the requisite slashes to make it through lean times. For freelance writers, in particular, she advocates a mixture of writing, teaching, speaking and consulting (which is, by the way, exactly what she’s done with her own career).

I don’t know if this is the way forward. But in a sea of otherwise depressing data, it’s at least something to think about.


In the meantime, if you’re looking for inspiration, have a look at Cards of Change, a website devoted to the business cards of the unemployed seeking re-employment.

Image: 1930 Unemployment Line aka Bread Line by SIR: Poseyal Knight of the DESPOSYNI’s photostream via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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  1. Rebecca June 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    Her question reminds me of something I see all the time as a financial planner–wanting it all. Unfortunately I have to tell them that they can’t quit their high-paying jobs AND keep spending what they were. Same applies here. She has to prioritize. How much does she want to freelance? If it’s really important, she’ll find the time. If it turns out that it’s more important to be able to buy new shoes (and there is nothing wrong with that), then she’ll focus on a more lucrative career.


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