Beyond 9 to 5: Understanding the Freelancing Landscape
Freelancing is ushering in a new age of work where people matter the most.
by Roace Alfonso
Work has always been painted in the grayest of colors. The day starts at nine–employees wearing dark-colored suits, bustling across whitewashed hallways under fluorescent lighting, and working in cubicles in front of blue-lit computer screens. You’ll hear clocks ticking, keyboards clacking, aircon whirring, and inaudible dialogues behind closed-door meetings. To break the monotony, companies would have pizza parties, employees would take afternoon breaks, and exchange juicy office gossip. Once the clock strikes five, people leave the office to go home and rest. Only to repeat the cycle the following day. Put it this way– if Dante rewrote Inferno, work would be included in his Nine Circles of Hell.
In order to escape monotony and in a way, to mock its very essence, people used their collective experience of work as a source of entertainment–from internet memes of how pizza can solve workplace issues to mainstream sitcoms like The Office and reality shows like The Apprentice. However, entertainment can only do so much as a band-aid solution. Employees realized their intrinsic value and started to demand better worker rights and humane working arrangements. While some industries remained stern with traditional work, some went against the grain and offered jobs beyond the 9 to 5 tradition. People started to see a host of job opportunities offering flexible arrangements they can pick anytime and anywhere.
This newfound liberty to choose jobs at one’s convenience is what gets a lot of people into freelancing. In fact, Foodpanda reported that the number of riders working for their app increased by four times ever since the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic started. The same goes with Lalamove’s driver-partners, which tripled ever since the start of 2020. Globally, the Philippines ranks 3rd in Upwork’s core freelancing market ever since 2017. Payoneer, an American financial services company, also reported that the Philippines is the fastest-growing freelancing country (based on revenue growth) closing in 2020 with a 208% increase from 35% last 2019.
However, this liberty is limited, often at the mercy of their clients and customers. You’ll see food delivery riders braving through harsh weather just to make it on time or getting suspended for protesting unjust contracts and worker rights. You’ll hear horror stories of how works of independent creatives get stolen by clients or graphic designers chasing clients for flaking their payment.
So how come that despite its volatile nature, freelancing and the gig economy continuously grow? Why do people consider it to be their new career path? And ultimately how will freelancing change the way we work?
One of the biggest shifts workplaces have noticed over the past years is how their workers are getting younger and older at the same time. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2025 forecast, 50% of the global population of Generation Zs & Millennials will come from the Asia-Pacific region. And in a 2021 report released by the United Nations Population Fund, it’s expected that by 2050, 1.3 billion people in the region will be over 60 years of age. With this polarizing shift in the workforce, it’s important to understand how workers are reshaping the future of work by prioritizing purpose, flexibility, and identity.
Millennials and Gen Zs are dubbed as disruptors of the work environment. They’re known to go against the grain by demanding purpose from their work. Millennials did not only see work as something that will pay them but it should also give them a sense of fulfillment and meaningful progress. The companies they work with must align and add value to their personal goals and beliefs. And when Gen Zs came in, they demanded something that would totally break the norm of traditional work–flexibility. For these young people, 9 to 5 working hours and on-site work setups are things of the past and only limit their potential and productivity. Instead, they looked for companies that allow flexible work arrangements like shorter work weeks, and remote work setups.
For the older generation, like Gen X and Y, work is what helps them provide for their families. Also known as the sandwich generation, they’re the textbook example of breadwinners who support both their parents and their own children– making sure that they have secured a good future for them. But when the global pandemic happened, it gave them time to reassess the value of work. The remote work setup opened new possibilities for them to juggle work and personal life. They can attend early meetings and still prepare their family’s breakfast or they can nurse their baby while finishing a report deadline. The chances of them missing important family milestones like birthdays and graduations became virtually zero.
Work flexibility opens up the opportunity for young people to develop their potential through meaningful pursuits. Young professionals put a premium on their individual identities. They thrive in environments that will value their voice and give them a seat at the table, literally and figuratively. Apart from making sure their voices are heard, Gen Zs and millennials actively pursue opportunities that offer them more chances to learn and hone multiple skills. For these professionals, being a jack of all trades is the key to success and progress contrary to the older generations’ belief of sticking to one career path.
While younger generations focus on growing a diverse skill set, the Gen Xs and Ys solidified their career by following a linear trajectory. Through years of experience, they’ve established themselves to be experts and consultants that their companies can count on. They take pride in the progress they’ve built that eventually became frameworks that future projects can grow from. They’ve also acknowledged their retirement is impending and that companies will soon replace them with technologies so they make the most out of their career by doing the work they’re best at.
These three priorities–purpose, flexibility, and identity is what freelancing offers to professionals. Professionals can choose the job they want to do and how they want to do it. They get to select companies and businesses that align with their goals and their ideas. And ultimately, it opens a wide array of opportunities that help them grow inside and outside work. Freelancing jobs serve as the antithesis to what traditional work offers. And it has proven its point when traditional work was tested by the global pandemic–businesses had to migrate and adapt to flexible working arrangements, technology, and automation.
A Work in Progress
Automation has always been the goal for most companies. Aside from growth in revenue, it’s something that I (and most workers) commonly hear during strategic planning and general assemblies. It is expected that by 2030, the landscape of work has transitioned to the red economy, a working culture driven by automation, technology, and data. Digitization and artificial intelligence will harvest and translate social and economic data that will be executed by robotics through tasks that humans used to do. However, technology and automation will still rely on human expertise to make sure they’re up and running. This opens the possibility for companies to hire experts and employees through flexible working arrangements or freelancing contracts.
One of the biggest industries that adopted these employment arrangements is the Technology- and App-Based Transport Network Service (TNVS) Industry. The industry gained steady popularity over the years, and reached its peak when the global pandemic hit. Industry giants like Grab, Foodpanda, Lalamove, Angkas, and newcomers like Mr. Speedy, and Toktok run on a service provider-centered business model. They connect with franchises and businesses to bridge their products and services to customers through their websites. This convenience culture caught on with people and TNVS giants contracted more partner businesses and drivers. For these giants, having more employees or partners means faster response time for customers which ultimately drives more revenue.
Partners, an umbrella term for their delivery riders and drivers, who work for these companies are considered to be independent contractors. They are indirectly affiliated with the company they’re providing their services to. These partners enter into an agreement that lists down the requirements they need to comply with, the services they’ll provide, the compensation they’ll receive, and the rules that they have to observe. The same principle and process apply to freelancers in other industries like creatives, IT experts, and marketers who enter into engagements with their clients. While these agreements serve their purpose to establish working relationships, there are a lot of loopholes that allow companies to implement work arrangements that bypass the rights of workers.
Over the past year, several labor issues have floated online within freelancing communities and on social media. When Lalafood, a food delivery subsidiary of Lalamove, ceased its operations in February 2021, numerous drivers of the company protested that they didn’t receive any separation pay. Last July 2021, forty-three Foodpanda riders were suspended after planning a silent protest after the company cut in half the minimum earning for each delivery from Php 55.00 down to Php 23.00. Despite issuing a labor advisory regarding the working conditions of delivery riders, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) failed to address and establish concrete standards that companies must follow. Instead, they recommended a series of tests that companies and employees can use to determine the basis of their working relationships.
Freelancers, particularly, in creative industries also have a hard time protecting their rights and getting access to basic benefits. You’d see and hear people who have a hard time getting their payment after the project or have their works used and shared online without permission. It’s also a struggle for freelancers to secure subsidized health care coverages, something that’s usually available for full-time jobs. On top of that, job security is one of the biggest risks in the freelancing economy. Given its volatile nature of being dependent on the current market trends, gigs available to the market often come and go. Most of the time, freelancers work on projects that are on-need basis usually coming from small business owners, independent clients, and start-up companies.
DOLE and the law-making bodies understand that legislation must be expedited immediately to protect the welfare of the freelancers because existing laws like the Labor Code of the Philippines and the 1987 Constitution, sparsely cover the freelancers’ working conditions. Unfortunately, both the legislations from the House of Congress (House Bill №8817 or Freelance Workers Protection Act) and Senate (Senate Bill 1810 or Freelancers Protection Act) are still in progress when the 18th Congress concluded last year. At this point, it’s a race against time. The more time it takes for the legislation to be enacted, the more chances that freelancers will experience inequalities that compromise their own rights.
Freelancing is the Future
While the legislation lies in the hands of the politicians in the upcoming 2022 elections, freelancing opportunities will continue to come, and now is the best time to grab those chances and see what doors it will lead you to. In order to prepare yourself before getting into freelancing, you need to remember the principles of purpose, flexibility, and identity.
It’s important to define your reasons for choosing to venture into freelancing. Take your time to identify your goals. This will be helpful for your job search. If your goal is to work on improving your technical skills, then it’s best to accept jobs that involve complex project executions. If your goal is to grow your career and actively participate in social causes, then it’s best to work with organizations that align with your ideals. If your goal is to work less and earn more, then it’s best to look for projects that can be sold to companies and will provide you with a passive stream of income.
Once you’ve narrowed down your goals, you have to define your brand identity from your portfolio, and target customers down to your pricing. Your portfolio must highlight your skills through the projects you’ve accomplished. Having a clear and concise portfolio is key to selling your brand.
While it’s very tempting to send your portfolio to every opportunity you’ll see, it’s best to review the clients’ profiles first. As much as possible you want to be associated with clients that could be beneficial for you in the long run. Building your reputation through quality clients is one of the more fool-proof ways to grow your clientele.
Working freelance can be a slow burn. It’s important to be patient in making organic connections and getting meaningful projects that are worth the wait. Again, it’s important to remember that you’re doing this for your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. While waiting, it’s important to continuously improve your skills and update your portfolio. An established brand is a good selling point but a brand that constantly improves gives you the edge in the market.
Lastly, always have the right mindset by listening to your own voice. Freelancing unlike its predecessor is an entirely different landscape where you will find yourself in challenges that will push you to your limits. But this is the opportunity for you to discover your true potential outside the traditional bounds of work and it’s liberating as it gets.
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