“Love is a trap. When it appears, we see only its light not its shadows.”

Paulo Coelho

Freedom to be on the school run, to yoga straight after, to pack up my laptop and work in a cafe because I fancy a change of scenery.  Freedom to choose when I work and when I play; freedom to pursue projects that excite me. Freelancing works for me but when I get asked for advice about it you’ll find me whispering from the ground-floor rather than hollering from the rooftop. It would be irresponsible not to.

The gig economy in the UK has seen enormous growth since the financial free-fall that kicked off in 2008. In 2018 15% (4.8 million people) of the working population were classed as self-employed.

Women in particular have been jumping the PAYE ship, abandoning a solid but unwieldy cruise-liner in favour of straddling a jet ski – nippy, but much more vulnerable.

Freelancing works for me because my partner has no flexibility in his job and works long hours – someone has to look after the children. Freelancing also works for me because his salary gives us financial security while mine just takes the pressure off.

I know of couples who both work freelance gigs and happily swap duties between them – one works while the other looks after the children. I know someone else who only works for 9 months of the year, spending the rest of his time travelling on the proceeds. Meanwhile I successfully dialled back my workload to one day a week last summer so I could spend the long holiday with the kids.

Books and articles promoting the positives of living life outside the 9 til 5 (ahem, 8 til 6) are abundant. Emma Gannon’s book The Multi-Hyphen Method is a brilliant breakdown of how to “design a career that works for you” by combining many sources of income. Rather than a guide to being a freelancer, her philosophy is one of future-proofing and “working less while creating more”. Its appeal is tangible.

The Freelance Mum by Annie Ridout offers sensible and realistic advice for mums trying to navigate the two equally unpredictable roads of freelance life and parenthood. If you have children it is definitely worth a read no matter where on your freelance journey you are. And of course I’m Digital Mum alumni – #workthatworks is etched into my brain. In 2016 I might have chanted it through gritted teeth in my sleep as I strived to retrain while juggling the full-time care of two children aged 1 and 3.

But while I don’t want to demonise the gig economy, I also feel uncomfortable with much of the conversation around this way of working. Sometimes it sounds like freelancing is the money-making equivalent of a Holy Grail brimming with unicorn tears left at the end of a double-rainbow, especially when discussed in the context of life after kids. I hate to be the troll lurking under the bridge but for many people this fairy tale might actually become a nightmare.

The truth – unpopular with politicians keen to protect their low-unemployment stats – is that the gig economy is not a panacea for all workplace woes.

Self-employment is insecure and offers few protections, no redundancy package, scantly paid maternity leave, no paid holiday, no sick pay, and no paid paternity leave. Just ask the “unsecured creditors” – writers, people – unlikely to receive a bean following the demise of The Pool whether the freedom to work whenever we want is better than paying their rent. If this flexibility is such a boon, why are Deliveroo and Uber drivers fighting so hard to secure better employment rights?

When many women go freelance after having children, their salary often takes a hit. A hidden consequence of this is that National Insurance contributions, upon which our state pensions are calculated, are reduced. It’s unpopular to defy the delusion that we’re forever young, and talking about pensions is boring, but the effects of self-employment are not only immediate.

Amongst 35-54 year olds, self-employed people are almost three times more likely to have no pension wealth compared to employed people the same age (ONS). Combine these facts with the double bind of women being the fastest growing group of freelancers, and that we are more likely to freelance part-time because of caring commitments, and all paths point to women being more likely to experience poverty as we age.

According to Hoop, close to a quarter of a million self-employed parents started their own business after feeling “pushed out” of their old role after having children.

But how aware are we that the freedoms offered by freelancing today set a trap to be sprung when we’re less able to pivot out of its way?

Of course it’s a knotty issue but threaded through the tangled web are easily-recognisable concerns. We have to challenge workplace attitudes to carers and mums – where do these attitudes come from and who do they serve?

Perhaps the pressure to “Just Go Freelance!” would dissipate if it was easier to stay in the workplace, so approaches to flexible work need to change, as do societal and workplace attitudes towards dads and the roles they play in family and home life.  

The funding and availability of childcare also requires overhaul, and when looking at that we can’t ignore the working conditions of those who perform those essential roles. We also need to have hard conversations about the protections freelancers are entitled to. Questions uncover questions and uncover questions and I don’t pretend to have the answers.

But as the conversation around freelancing too often feels like the love Paulo Coelho describes, I just want to shine some light into its shadows.