The Way We Work
December 3, 2012 by Amy Sept

Freelancing is the fastest-growing sector of the economy, according to The Atlantic, and already up to one-third of working adults in the U.S. are classified as independent contractors by the Government Accountability Office.

These solo professionals are also a pretty happy group. The 2012 State of Independence in America report from MBO Partners, for example, found that 71 percent of independent contractors have a high level of satisfaction with their work—and the vast majority expect things to stay the same or get better over the next year.

However, it’s increasingly evident that being self-employed isn’t without its challenges; with the continuing shift in the way the world works, many traditional systems and safety nets don’t fit the independent lifestyle.

In particular, despite the rise in independent contractors, their interests are generally unprotected. Even their numbers are unconfirmed; the Bureau of Labour Statistics stopped tracking contingent workers in 2005, before the economic downturn.

As a result—as cynical as it may sound—there’s only one person who is able to look after you and your self-employed future: You. Here’s some guidance on two of the most important considerations for long-term freelance career planning—protecting your finances, now and in the future, and staying professionally relevant.

Thinking About Finances

Retirement planning is a fairly universal challenge. “Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day,” wrote economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci in a New York Times opinion piece.

Financial issues are perhaps more magnified among self-employed professionals who have no employer—or employment support—to turn to for assistance with healthcare expenses, household emergencies, or periods of low or no income.

According to a survey from 24 Seven, cash flow is the number one concern that impacts freelancer happiness.

Providing advice for a freelance couple on CNN Money, financial planner Colleen Weber recommended a robust emergency reserve to help cover unforeseen shortfalls and protect against the feast-or-famine flux of freelance work. “The ideal target for freelancers: six months to a year of readily accessible funds,” she wrote.

That’s no small amount of change to squirrel away when you have other bills and expenses to pay on an ongoing basis. While a financial planner can give you the best advice for your particular situation, taking stock of your current income and expenses—plus setting a reasonable budget and sticking to it—is a starting point many know but still forget.

When you’re primarily focused on paying your bills this month and next, retirement can seem far on the horizon. In fact, many retirees turn to freelancing as a meaningful way to stay active and engaged while supplementing their income; for example, nearly half of working Canadians plan to ease into retirement by continuing with part-time or freelance work.

However, banking on a lengthy professional career instead of savings adds more risk to an already unknown future. U.S.-based freelancers have four basic investment options:

You may also consider the Freelancers Union’s 401(k) Retirement Plan, open to anyone who receives 1099 income and tailored to help meet the needs of independent contractors.

Keeping Up With Your Industry

“Staying professionally relevant” is the challenge that most frequently keeps freelancers awake at night, 24 Seven’s survey found.

When it comes to ongoing education and the competition for talent, there’s extra pressure on the self-employed to manage their own career and guide it towards not just the skills needed now, but those needed in the future.

Given the rapid pace of change in the world we work in, how can you anticipate where you should focus your energy?

  • Social media provides a phenomenal opportunity to stay on top of industry trends, whether you’re participating in conversations on Twitter or in LinkedIn groups.
  • In-person networking is another way to learn what others are doing, as well as how general client needs in your industry may be shifting.
  • In addition to networking opportunities, trade shows and conferences are some of the best ways to learn what’s new and coming soon in your particular sector.

You can also turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for a forecast: Their Occupational Outlook Handbook projects out to 2020 in a number of sectors, providing an overview of broad skills required and the job outlook.

What are you doing to plan ahead—for yourself or your business? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor

As the Managing Editor of the Upwork blog, Amy Sept works with regular and guest writers to share information that helps freelancers and businesses navigate the future of work. A writer and social media pro, she owns Nimbyist Communications and often works remotely with non-profits, tech companies, and small business owners.