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One journalist’s story of balancing gig-work with the 9-to-5, and everything in between.
Guest Writer: Michelle Anya Anjirbag
One of the hardest things about freelancing is that it is not necessarily a cure for precarity. As satisfying, full-time, real solid jobs become harder and harder to come by, we turn to the 1099 world for a form of stability. But in some ways, the fine line between supplemental income and the gig economy–and the even finer one between the gig economy and exploitation–make you even more precarious.
I remember the first day I got back into a newsroom: it was like being back at my college newspaper, which was truly one of my happy places. Newsprint has a very distinct smell, the ink specifically, and when it’s piled and stacked everywhere it can have the same effect as walking into a favorite coffee shop. It hits your nose, and you just perk up a little, and the buzz around you of many people all working on different parts of one specific goal gets under your skin.
That particular day, I had an interview for a part-time job as a staff writer for a local newspaper. I was back home after a graduate program, and being in the newsroom again brought back all of those feelings of being part of something bigger that served people–the best job in the world. And while being a freelance journalist was far from solid, it was another way to add to my account. And as enlivening and wonderful as being back in that office felt, being there was not just about a higher calling to serve the fourth estate in my little corner of the world. I was, at the end of the day, in it for the paycheck.
When I worked as a journalist, I was between graduate programs and was bored with my day-time shop-job. I was overjoyed when the opportunity to do something I loved appeared; but at the same time, the precarity was and still is a real problem. Labors of love and duty and purpose can take a long time to show dividends – if they ever do. And so I started freelancing as a journalist, writer, and editor, even while working two other jobs at a shop and newspaper. I needed to supplement my income somehow, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to add yet another set-but-variable-weekly-schedule.
Adding some freelancing seemed like the obvious choice. In theory, I would have control over my time, my assignments, my rates – I could decide what my time and knowledge were worth. And after all, so many people constantly seemed ready to ask questions about writing or editing or social media, or ask for favors, or a quick look at something, and well, of course there was a market waiting to be tapped, right?
The market wasn’t quite what I expected. Customer reactions to the lower end of the Freelancers’ Union’s suggested rates (you want how much?!?!; my son could do that for free!) were as good as cold water to the face to break me out of any illusion that adding this gig on to the rest of my life was going to be easy. People don’t pay – individuals or companies – so it can become a drain on both your time and your own money chasing what is owed. You become mentally drained and exhausted because downtime from the work you do for other people starts to feel like time you should be spending working for yourself, in order to build something that gets you out of the precarity and somewhere more financially stable. While sometimes you find that moment or project that makes everything worth it, more often than not, the grind of both the 9-to-5 and the freelance hustle would just wear me down.
But like with anything, you have to decide what you want, and how much it matters to you – so you learn to face those moments and turn negatives into positives. You pivot; instead of trying to argue your worth, you learn to answer the “Why should I pay you for something that I can do myself?” with, “Okay, then do it yourself.” Instead of chasing private clients, you learn how to network online and look for calls for pitches. You stop being scared of rejection, of being wrong. Succeeding means learning to push back against a world that was already telling you that you weren’t worth the shot at stability just because you didn’t pick the “right” (read: finance, law, STEM) field, and now would try to kick you down harder for trying to use your voice and skills as a source of income. You learn to fight for yourself and for your expertise. Freelancing on top of my day job taught me to advocate for myself–which in turn taught me that actually, I did have things to say. Writing and engaging with the world as well as being able to work on my own terms became a certain kind of self-care.
No part of that hustle was easy. And yet, I would not trade the experience – even now, even having moved on from that life. There’s something about doing a job well, doing it quickly, and cleanly, and seeing it put into the world, that is absolutely satisfying – a small way to break up the routine, a way to find a piece of satisfaction (however fleeting) in the routine of survival, a way to always, always know my own worth, and to say “no” to things that don’t honor that.
As the economy continues to shift to nonpermanent labor, it is really easy to be convinced that freelancers are somehow expendable because there are so many of us, and that there will always be someone with a lower rate, and you don’t want to lose the money. But I think that is what makes ‘making it,’ whatever that means, even better. Because when you hit your own personal metric, it has nothing to do with anyone’s standards but yours. The juggle becomes worth it.