Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Un-Unemployed

This is a piece I wrote for the Employment issue of the fantastic Pea Soup magazine. If you don't already, follow Pea Soup on Twitter and Like them on Facebook. 

THE Un-Unemployed

In a city that’s full of people moaning about their jobs, and others miserable because of a lack of one, spare a moment’s thought for those stuck in the middle who aren’t quite sure. The hermaphrodites of the employment world. Yep, we’re talking about you, freelancers...

But do they have double the burden or the best of both worlds? Pea Soup spends a week with a selection of London’s most prolific in a bid to separate the fact from the fiction.

We meet our first freelancer at 9 o’ clock on a Monday morning, promptly knocking on his door and secretly hoping to find him still in his pyjamas. After all, don’t freelancers always wear pyjamas? Well, apparently not. Freelance journalist Adam is awake, dressed and ready to head off to his place of work: the local Costa. On arrival he buys a coffee and heads instinctively to the far corner of the room, his reasoning becoming clear when we spot a plug for his laptop. It all seems very calm and civilised until it transpires that today the coffee shop’s wifi is as dodgy as its coffee, and his webmail account won’t load because it keeps timing out. It’s not so much the waste of precious work time which makes this a true freelance disaster, but the waste of a whole one hundred and ninety five precious pennies on a cup of watery liquid filth. This may sound like a bit of a first world problem, but as Adam puts it, “Living without Gmail is pretty much like living in the third world”. Well, quite.

A relocation to an internet enabled greasy spoon down the road allows us a bit of brekkie, some status updates and the cyberstalking of a few potentially hot friends of friends whilst Adam gets on with some proper work. It must be at least an hour and a half until it’s time to move again, and it’s with worrying excitement that we realise the local pub is now open. Don’t fret though, Adam displays an enormous amount of self restraint and orders just a half pint, showing a determination to keep working until at least not that far off 5pm today. Bloody Hell, it’s almost like he has a real job.

Time passes by, and though Adam spends the late afternoon and early evening catching up with friends, a surprising number of whom are also unemployed freelance, it’s with respect that we follow him home and see him start up where he left off with more work at gone 9pm. It’s not many office workers you’d catch doing that.

Roll on Tuesday, and we’re up early to head over to our next freelancer, Hackney based DJ Watsu. He didn’t want to have his true identity revealed so we’ve picked this name for him, but rest assured his real one is even more ridiculous. It’s apparently definitely not his name that stops him from getting a full-time job though, but rather his creative ambition. We don’t disapprove, but when it’s not until 11am that we get a call from him to say he’s ready to meet us, perhaps there’s other reasons. We chat about his styles, influences and flavours (we know...), and drink plenty of tea before a friend of his turns up and we witness a colliding of creative talent in the form of empty adjective tossing and incomprehensible abstract metaphors. We’d hazard a guess that caffeine isn’t all the pair of them are high on, and wouldn’t be surprised if they had a few mates who playedHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""synth. But surely they’re talented. Well, we couldn’t tell you. That evening’s gig had to be cancelled at the last minute so we didn’t get to have a taste (or flavour...) of what they do. This happens quite a lot, apparently.

By Wednesday we’ve already had a varied taste of freelance life. Today we’re meeting Talula. This is her real name, but she genuinely doesnHYPERLINK ""HYPERLINK ""tHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""doHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""theHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""hula. She lives with her parents in Hampstead, is a freelance fashion writer and an aspiring model. Meeting in a pricey cafe close to Belsize Park, this feels very different to the freelance lifestyle we’re used to. It’s cake ahoy (Daddy’s paying) and lots of chatting about mister this and Sonny Jim that before Talula whips out her MacBook and starts checking her twitter feed. We have to prompt her to learn about her work lifestyle and it transpires she’s an intern at an up-and-coming style magazine in Shoreditch three days a week. Since when did beingHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""anHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""intern equate to being freelance? And willHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""thisHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""beHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""legalHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""forHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""muchHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""longer?

It seems to be the thing with freelancing: whilst in theory it’s every bit a proper job, it can be used by many as an excuse not to work at all, and on the flip-side, for employers not to pay. If you’re lucky enough to have a family to back you up, that’s all well and good - but only so long as it’s leading somewhere. Will it pay off for Talula? Who knows, but what’s clear from our own experience is that freelancer writers are pretty much bottom of the pecking order. Ever heard of freelance sales people, computer programmers or designers working for free? No. But writers, yes please - it’s good for the portfolio. All this begs the question, if you aren’t being paid to work, do you actually have a job? Surely you’re unemployed, no...?

We meet our final freelancer on Thursday and aren’t sure whether we like or loathe the fact that it involves stepping into the world of NathanHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""Barley. A HoxtonHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""coffeeHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""shop, loads of ideas for blogs and a sense of impending massiveness seem to be the prevalent features in Keith’s life, but whilst it may sound like a doss session, what if someone had told Mark Zuckerberg to stop playing around with his PC? Well, we’d probably all get a lot more work done on a daily basis - but where’s the fun in that. And Keith’s proving that his work on social media is getting somewhere. His bemoaning of a load of unpaid invoices which are over 30 days old is a familiar one, and something which any genuine freelancer will be familiar with. “How come all the people who buy my services don’t pay until they’re legally required to after 30 days and after I’ve chased persistently, whilst if I told Primark I’d pay for my jeans in due course, I’d be laughed out the shop?”, ventures Keith. It may be a slightly downmarket analogy, but he’s right.

Being a freelancer is anything but easy. It may allow you to get up a bit later and give you more flexibility to do what you want, but at the end of the day you either work hard or don’t get paid. Considering there’s plenty of people across London and the UK who have cushy, well paid jobs yet spend the majority of their working day chatting, blogging or thumb twiddling, freelancers come across as quite a diligent bunch. Perhaps encouraging the freelance lifestyle should replace some of the GovernmentHYPERLINK ""HYPERLINK ""sHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""randomHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""schemes to combat youth unemployment?

From our experience during the week, it’s clear not all freelancers are as driven and hardworking as others, but a lot of them certainly are. They may not be unemployed, but stop working for a couple of days and they’re as good as just that. Don’t even mention sick pay...

And how were we able to spend all week wandering around with these people, you might wonder? Well, it’s not like we have a job to go to. We’re freelance too, you see. It’s the future...

Written by Ben Norum in a pub with wifi..

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