In the age of technology, workers have more choices than ever when it comes to their careers. Gone are the days when having a career meant following a linear path from schooling to training to working for a single company in a traditional office for decades on end. While the majority of people still pursue traditional full- or part-time employment working for established companies and organizations, some people choose a different path.
As author and career coach Carol Eikelberry (1999) explains:
As the conventional 9-to-5 job with one employer becomes less the norm, the new work world presents great opportunities to unconventional people who are flexible and independent and eager to learn.
Opportunities abound, but for many people, having too many options can be overwhelming and may prevent them from pursuing the “unconventional” path that is right for them.
This paper will explore the relationship between job satisfaction and the decision to pursue independent work, including the following questions:
- What is a freelancer?
- What motivates people to pursue independent work?
- What challenges does the aspiring freelancer face?
- How can coaching support people who are considering transitioning from “traditional” employment to working freelance?
- What is a Freelancer?
According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary (www.merriam-webster.com), “freelancer” is defined as follows:
A person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization; OR a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer. For the purposes of this paper, the terms “freelance(r)” and “independent work(er)” are used interchangeably and serve as an umbrella for various independent work arrangements, including contracting for companies. Essentially, a freelancer is someone who works outside of a traditional 9-to-5 job.
Satisfaction Not Guaranteed
The majority of full-time employed people spend upwards of 40 hours per week at work, and it stands to reason that most people want to feel satisfied by the work they do. But how satisfied is the average worker? According to a 2011 survey, 83 percent of respondents reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their current job (Society for Human Resource Management, 2011). At first glance, it seems like good news that the majority of the workforce reports feeling content. However, upon closer inspection that number proves to be a bit misleading.
When separated out by age group, the study found that only 29 percent of workers aged 31 to 61 report being “very satisfied”, compared with 52 percent of those aged 67 and older (SHRM, 2011). Why do older people feel more content at work? It could be because they are only a few years away from retirement and can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Or perhaps life experience plays a part. In any case, the fact that over 70 percent of younger workers do not feel “very satisfied” paints a rather bleak picture.
In addition to age, there are many factors that influence employees’ levels of satisfaction at work. According to the survey, job security topped the list of most important determinants of job satisfaction, followed closely by opportunities to use skills and abilities (SHRM, 2011). Eikelberry (1999) points out that studies show that underutilization of workers’ skills and abilities is correlated not only with job dissatisfaction, but with low self-esteem and depression. For those who want more opportunities to use their natural skills, abilities and creativity, freelancing can be an attractive option.
Fitting In vs Striking Out
When a person decides to establish a freelance career, it is commonly for one of the following reasons: they want a more flexible schedule, they want a diversity of projects, they seek freedom from office politics, they wish to have more creative control over their work, and/or they want an opportunity to make more money (Freelancers Union, 2011). Another big factor is the desire to do work that is meaningful and aligned with one’s values (Freelancers Union, 2011). However, the decision to pursue independent work is sometimes born out of previous challenges in the workplace. The decision to freelance often comes about after having multiple jobs that were not a good fit.
It is easy for “unconventional” types to feel like a failure after not being able to find contentment in a traditional workplace, especially after having tried several different jobs or career fields. A person might try one job only to feel dissatisfied and move onto the next, which turns out to be no better. This continued dissatisfaction could be the result of switching jobs without taking time to reflect on all of the options. When people do not thoroughly explore enough options or get enough information it is more likely that their choices will turn out badly (Eikelberry, 1999).
Alternatively, some people decide to begin freelancing after being laid off from a job. While being laid off can sometimes be a relief for frustrated workers, it can also mean uncertainty and discomfort. But discomfort can be a good place from which to start. According to Eikelberry (1999),
…discontent can fuel you with the energy and motivation to set off on an adventure.
Luckily, there are more opportunities now than ever for workers to create their own independent work arrangement. According to the last official government survey of the independent workforce, conducted in 2005, the number of independent workers has grown as workers who were laid off turn to freelancing, and as more and more companies see the value in hiring freelancers and independent contractors because of the flexibility and cost-savings to the employer (Freelancers Union, 2011).
Finding the Path
When making the decision to go freelance, people tend to fall into one of two categories: they either have a specific skill they want to build their work around, or they know they want to work for themselves, but don’t necessarily have a clear picture of what sort of work they want to do. They may want to break free from the field they have been working in to pursue something entirely new.
In the case of the former, taking the steps to move forward can be relatively straightforward. These people can employ the services of a business coach to help them explore how to set up their freelance business and deal with the adjustment to independent work, which comes along with some unique challenges. One common challenge is the fear of losing “job security” by moving from employee to freelancer. Studies show that job security is one of the top contributors to a person’s sense of well-being in the workplace (SHRM, 2011).
However, as recently as 2011, a report by Gallup indicated that three out of 10 workers with traditional employment feel worried that they could be laid off soon or have their hours reduced. The idea that traditional employment equals job security seems to be a myth. On the other hand, there are signs that opportunities for independent workers will increase in the coming years. The last national study of freelancers, conducted in 2006, showed that 42.6 million Americans were already working independently, and one prediction stated that up to 35 percent of the total national workforce will be comprised of independent workers by 2020 (Freelancers Union, 2011). A survey conducted by elance.com (2012) showed that employers surveyed predict that as much as 54 percent of their workforce will consist of online workers within the next several years. According to the survey, employers “find that talent online is better than or equal to what’s available locally, and in part, are leveraging online workers to do work that they would have done themselves or not done at all” (Elance.com, 2012).