Creative freelancers will help us rebuild our social infrastructure

This year has been painful. It triggered industry shutdowns, brought unemployment levels rivaling those seen during the Great Depression, and left us angry and afraid.

However, it also catalyzed a massive uptick in political engagement, organizing in support of social justice, and a broad questioning of our complacency with the status quo. 

If 2020 has made one thing clear in the creative industries, it’s that we need to build more equitable workplaces and a better social safety net. Here are some thoughts on the future and ways we can fight for a brighter 2021:

Freelance work will grow in size and influence. COVID-19 has forced companies to adapt to more decentralized and distributed teams, increasing demand for freelance creatives. Clients who would never hop on a video call now do so without hesitation, and building relationships in-person is no longer a significant barrier to signing on new work. 

Freelancers represent more than one-third of the workforce, a figure that has steadily grown over the past decade. Within creative industries, going out on your own has replaced climbing the corporate ladder as a pathway for earning more and working on better projects. More than half of Gen Z is freelancing, and many will never experience traditional employment.

As geographical barriers are eliminated and clients become accustomed to remote work, a culture of independent and autonomous work will continue to grow as well. With the most sought-after creatives working independently, there will be more opportunity for high-demand freelancers to redefine the terms of work, build their own teams, and negotiate better deals. 

Creative freelancers will help us rebuild our social infrastructure. Creative workers were among the first to organize online amid pandemic shutdowns. They grew online communities to discuss workplace safety and organized mutual aid funds to support struggling workers. These groups were able to move quickly by leveraging the vast professional networks creative freelancers build to run their businesses. 

More broadly, Americans are reassessing the role we play in our communities amid the pandemic. We’re organizing food banks, donating to charity, and shopping for elderly neighbors. We have become aware of the need to drive dollars to support local businesses. 

My hope is that the organizing and collectives continue to grow and play a stronger role in supporting and connecting creative workers, perhaps building the new communications tools we need to navigate our changing landscape. If there’s any group already accustomed to this moment we’re living in, which demands of us a high-wire act of consistent productivity, multitasking, isolation, and few social supports, it’s freelancers. 

Let us lead the way in working together to build resilience and solidarity.

There will be a growing demand to update our social safety net. With film productions shut down for much of the summer, music venues closed, and creative budgets slashed, creative freelancers have experienced a financially devastating year with little or no government support. At the same time, freelancers experienced critical gaps in health care as they hit the threadbare limits of their individual plans or went without insurance.

Faced with great urgency, creative sector leaders successfully pushed the federal government to provide unemployment assistance to freelancers for the first time. While this one-time relief effort was clearly not enough, it has led government officials to better understand the challenges freelancers face, and sparked a larger debate over the need to invest in our safety net. 

Moreover, the battle over gig worker classification in California has ensured that the freelance economy will be at the top of labor agendas federally and in blue states. Next year will be a key moment for creative sector advocates to voice the needs of their communities to push for more thoughtful and comprehensive classification laws and help shape an agenda for a 21st-century safety net that protects all workers. 

Creative industries must continue to reckon with racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has propelled much-needed reckoning over the structural racism ingrained in our creative industries. It has opened critical conversations around fighting systemic racism in our culture and cultural production. Creative workers have played a complex and challenging role at the heart of these conversations.

Marketers and community managers sat at the frontlines representing brands grappling with their responses to the BLM movement. BIPOC workers called out pay disparities and discriminatory practices, often at great professional risk. Companies responded with pledges of BLM support and donations to antiracist organizations, but often without the institutional support and resources to make the necessary internal changes to reflect their external commitments.

Without being too rosy, I hope this moment opens up more opportunity and a particular kind of structural labor power for creative workers to drive more equitable practices and accountability in the organizations they work with. Many creative freelancers have already started this work themselves by adopting anti-racism explicitly into their own business practices, the collaborators they partner with, and the value they bring to creative work. Without better vehicles for labor organizing, reaching the lasting and sweeping industry changes needed will be an uphill battle, but it’s a struggle that has brought more companies to the table.

To be clear, I think the road ahead for creative workers will be challenging, and we won’t conjure any major transformations without sustained organizing to make it so. My hope is that the disruption in creative industries provides some catalyst and opportunity to enable those who want to fight for a better future.

Ready to take your business to the next level?

Caitlin Pearce

Former Executive Director, Freelancers Union