The Gig Is Up: How the Freelance Economy Is Changing Work

Freelancing may be the future of work, but life in the gig economy means many works are without a safety net. What happens when they fall?

By the standards of most human resources managers, Adrian Sinclair’s job-hunting style is like a step-by-step guide to career suicide. In interviews, the 35-year-old event planner is frank about his challenges with punctuality and his preference to work off-site, and has, on more than one occasion, actively petitioned to downgrade a permanent position to a contract gig.

Take, for example, the time he interviewed for a part-time job with the Museum of Vancouver, organizing soirees and happenings to promote their rotating exhibits. “They were asking for a 21-hour-a-week position, where I’d be there three days a week. I kept saying, ‘I’ll work eight hours a week for you on-site and another eight hours a week for you off-site—or as much as you need—as a contractor.’”

He didn’t get the job. But four months later the museum called him up to take advantage of his proposal, with no guarantee Sinclair would get a minimum number of hours each week. He was stoked. “I was like, great!”

Precarious Work

If you’ve been paying attention to labour market news in the last few years, you’ll be familiar with the term “precarious work.” The catch-all phrase encompasses the part-time, temporary and contract gigs that have comprised the careers of a growing number of Canadians since the 1980s, when companies began eliminating full-time jobs—and all the security, benefits and pensions that came with them—in favour of hiring contractors and consultants. The cost-saving corporate measures hit high gear during the Great Recession of 2008 with a “jobless recovery” in the years since giving rise to an entirely new class of worker. Often, the so-called precariat are portrayed as disenfranchised young people locked out of the traditional labour market and left to grapple with terminal uncertainty. But in Vancouver, where many workers, like Sinclair, want to work in contract-based creative industries or create their own projects altogether, a life built around balancing gigs isn’t necessarily the raw end of a bad deal; it’s part of the appeal.

“The city markets itself as a creative city—it wants to be that,” says Sinclair, who these days co-runs an event planning company that helps produce large-scale events such as the Vancouver Mural Festival. He also teaches part-time at SFU’s City Studio and enjoys a flexible schedule that allows for hobbies like the drop-in freestyle rap sessions he sometimes runs. The combo earns him about $40,000 a year before tax—above the provincial median income for individuals. “Part of it is everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid, which is fine. I’m happy to put some bubbly water with that and drink it down.”

That may bode well for the city’s reputation as a place where people value passion over paycheques, but it also has profound implications for the future of a city that is increasingly fuelled by freelancers. “The Lower Mainland is, I think, particularly attuned to this shift in precarity for workers because of the types of sectors here—that’s tech, that’s the maker economy, that’s arts and culture, the service sector,” says Darcy Vermeulen, a B.C. spokesperson for the Urban Workers Project, a non-partisan, non-profit group launched in 2016 to organize and advocate for precarious workers. “And these are the good jobs, the jobs that people want.”

“These are the people who are one bicycle accident away from not being able to pay their rent.” —Darcy Vermeulen

But supporting an economy built around the boom and bust cycles of small start-ups, service workers and independent contractors is tricky business. Many of the city’s workers are without paid sick days, health and dental benefits, maternity leave or access to Employment Insurance, which, Vermeulen worries, will cost us all down the road. An awareness campaign done by the Urban Workers Project revealed precarious workers make major sacrifices to compensate for their lack of security. They put off routine health checks such as eye or dental exams that aren’t covered by MSP, or delay or forgo having children, and many do not have financial backup in the event of illness or injury. “I like to say these are the people who are one bicycle accident away from not being able to pay their rent,” he says.

With nearly 60 percent of the jobs created across the country in 2015 categorized as self-employment, according to Statistics Canada, this segment of the population is poised only to grow, creating an urgent need to update employment legislation to reflect this reality. That’s already happening in Ontario, which is reviewing its labour laws and where the Urban Workers Project is pushing for changes that would make it easier for contractors, consultants and freelancers to unionize, as well as give them greater access to Employment Insurance, including maternity and parental leave, and other benefits.

Vermeulen would like to see the same thing happen in B.C., which leads the country in per capita rates of small business, most of which are run by sole proprietors, and where more than one in five people—22 percent of the population—is self-employed, according to Small Business BC. There is already some precedent on how the province could adjust its legislation, says Vermeulen, noting that contract workers in B.C.’s film and TV sectors are able to unionize, a model that could be extended to other industries.

Small Business Model

Meanwhile, some cities are taking concrete steps to improve life for precarious workers. In October 2016, New York City council passed a bill requiring companies who use contractors to pay for work in full by a set deadline or face possible court action and hefty fines. The city’s comptroller general also introduced the New York Nest Egg, a plan that would allow small businesses and self-employed individuals to buy into municipally supported pension programs.

It’s a move Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer says could serve as inspiration for Vancouver as it scrambles to respond to the results of several decades of workforce change and the success of the city’s own branding. While she admits that provincial laws governing municipal pension plans would make a New York-style nest egg difficult to implement here, “it should at least be a discussion that we’re having,” she says.

According to Reimer, governments of all stripes have been slow to realize the way work has fundamentally changed, and it’s not just labour codes that need a major overhaul. The way we plan city infrastructure and services also needs to change. All of Vancouver’s “guts and feathers”—the pipes, zoning bylaws and transit corridors—were created to serve an economy that relied heavily on resources and industrial processing. That is all part of a bygone era. “Fast-forward to the modern economy and very little about that makes sense anymore,” she says.

For instance, Reimer says it’s no longer necessary to keep a stark separation between business and residential districts or maintain industrial areas that shut down at 5 p.m. But figuring out how to adjust city planning to support what she calls the “innovation economy” is challenging because there isn’t a mechanism to track how people are configuring their working lives.

Reimer suspects close to half of Vancouver’s population works out of places that aren’t licensed to conduct business in—whether they make the rounds at local coffee shops with their laptops, write reports at the kitchen table or run maker studios in the “flex space” of their condos. This is relevant not because the city wants to crack down on people working independently without a business license, but because it needs that information in order to update its planning policies.

“Even if you have a job, that doesn’t mean you have a physical place to undertake it in, and we do not build our housing stock with that consideration in mind,” says Reimer, adding that the city has convened an innovation economy roundtable to study how it can better support modern workers through land-use planning. But she admits the process is long overdue and tackles only some parts of a complicated issue. “We’ve only just started thinking about where your pension is going to come from, or how we’re going to protect you when you’re sick, or any of those things.”

Often, many people who willingly opt for those unconventional working arrangements aren’t thinking about them at all, says Christian Saint Cyr, a former career counsellor and independent labour consultant who publishes the BC Labour Market Report. While changing sensibilities around work and technological advancement have made self-employment more enticing for people who want autonomy over their schedules and their work, many still don’t adequately plan for the long term. “That’s a huge problem with self-employment, generally,” he says. “You have lots of 50- and 60-year-old people out there who continue to work because they have a mortgage on their house…and they haven’t done that planning.”

The Hustle

Alexandra Samuel may well wind up as one of them. But the 45-year-old freelance technology writer and strategist isn’t fazed by the prospect of working forever. Always one to value flexibility and meaningful work over stability, Samuel has spent much of her career working for larger organizations as both a contractor and an employee, as well as for herself. She ran social media consulting company Social Signal for five years with her husband, a political strategist and speechwriter who has also spent large chunks of time working as an independent contractor. These days, she’s freelancing full-time. Samuel agrees Vancouver invites a certain breed of entrepreneur with its focus on lifestyle, but there’s another reason many people choose to strike out on their own. With a lack of corporate ladders to climb, professionals in their mid- to late careers often find they either need to leave town for bigger centres or go it alone. “There aren’t that many jobs in Vancouver for somebody at my level,” she says.

While they’ve contemplated moving to San Francisco or Toronto, Samuel says she and her husband, who have two school-aged children, have decided to stay put. Running their own business has come with trade-offs—for instance, Samuel has never had a maternity leave and was back at work literally the day after giving birth to her youngest child. But working from home and hiring a nanny made the situation manageable, even preferable. “Babies are a lot of work, but they’re boring,” she says. “You might as well build some websites.”

“Realistically, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to retire and I don’t really care.” —Alexandra Samuel

Through the years, the family has had periodic access to extended benefits when either partner has taken the occasional “real job,” but they’ve had some long periods where dental checkups and eye exams have been paid out of pocket or through a privately purchased insurance plan. For Samuel, the financial cost is outweighed by the freedom she has to focus on work that she loves, as well as the flexibility to support her son, who has autism. However, she acknowledges that without long-term disability coverage, the family is incredibly vulnerable to illness or injury. “If we get sick, we’re screwed,” she says. Similarly, there’s not much in the way of retirement savings. “We have done nothing. We have no financial cushion,” says Samuel, although she adds the couple does own their home in a Kitsilano duplex, and as an only child she’ll likely receive some inheritance from family. But that doesn’t exactly add up to a retirement plan, and Samuel has adopted a Zen-like attitude toward the reality that she may be working forever; in fact, she’s hopeful her best earning years lie ahead of her. It all goes back to the major perk in being the architect of your own career, she says: when you like your work, you don’t mind the idea of doing it indefinitely. “Realistically, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to retire and I don’t really care.”

Adrian Sinclair seems equally at peace with a murky financial future. Running his business with a partner, Andrea Curtis, affords some degree of insurance against life’s ups and downs—one partner can continue to run the business in the event the other needs time off. But Sinclair has also been experimenting with ways to build up equity beyond private pension plans or real estate, which he doubts he’ll ever be able to afford. Lately, he’s been buying ethical stocks and experimenting with the market in order to learn how to extend his savings. “Besides that, if I ever get a lump sum from work, I buy precious metals.” It may sound quirky, but for Sinclair, being willing to think outside the box in order to make things work is just part of Vancouver’s civic identity.

“Anyone who is willing to stay is a hustler—is able to deal with a lot of uncertainty,” he says.

What do you think of the freelance economy? Let us know in the comments below!