Day Job or Freelance: Which Is Right for You?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in three American workers earn their keep through a model of work that is not a traditional 9-to-5 job. Many of these are freelance and contract workers, earning their income from one or more different jobs, and known alternatively as "portfolio careerists" or the slightly less glam "slashers" (as in writer/coach/unicycle performer).

For some people, a portfolio career is proof that necessity is the mother of invention. When the economy tanked and jobs were scarce, this was a great way to make ends meet. But it's a very different work environment than a typical full-time job.

While it is unsurprising that the number of people taking multiple part-time jobs might rise during a recession, the trends seem to show that these numbers are continuing to grow — a sign that the days of the traditional model of work are numbered. By 2020, it is anticipated that 40% of the American workforce will work as a freelancer, with a mix of part-time, contingent roles. But which is really better? Here are some pros and cons of each lifestyle.

In Favor of Full Time

For now, at least, full time work is still the norm. So what's so attractive about the traditional approach to careers?

1. High Rollers Are Seldom Part-Time

If what you want out of your working career is to rise through the ranks and achieve the status and salary that comes with that, then a full-time, permanent job is definitely the right option for you. While people in portfolio careers certainly can achieve wealth and status in their respective fields, this is much harder to do. If you want a healthy 401K, benefits package, and paid vacation, then stick to the full-time gigs.

2. Society Is Still Structured to Suit Full-Time Employees

Bringing in a steady full-time income, from a company that is established and understood, has a number of benefits above and beyond the cash. Organizing your taxes, planning your retirement, keeping a healthy credit record, and getting a mortgage are all easier with a full-time job than a portfolio. The variety you get with working several part-time or freelance jobs has to be offset by the increased burden of admin. and organization, particularly in a financial sector which has not adjusted to the needs of this population.

3. It Leads to Better Work Relationships

For many people, the reason you get up to go to work is not so much about the work itself, but rather about the people around you. With bonds built over years of employment, your colleagues can often be the closest people to you — an experience that few freelancers get to share. Consider your social needs carefully before you think too hard about a portfolio career!

The Pros of Freelancing

It's growing at a rapid pace, but will it last? Why is portfolio living attractive to people who could choose a nice, safe 9-to-5?

1. Freelancers Have Multiple Sources of Income

Ironically, a portfolio career might mean better job security than a full-time job. Having multiple income streams means that if one dries up, others can fill its place more easily. Since the economic downturn, more people than ever have found themselves being laid off from their regular jobs. As a portfolio careerist, this can be less of a terrifying option, and more a redirection of your time.

2. You Build a Diverse Set of Skills

One of the reasons that a portfolio career can snowball into a very lucrative choice, is that you naturally develop sets of varied but complementary skills, which can be sold at a premium. Take a freelance writer, who can also take (and sell) a decent photograph, teach writing, or build a personal blog that draws in advertising revenue. Each individual effort links to the next, growing valuable skills all the time.

3. Variety Is a Given

If you're even vaguely thinking about a portfolio lifestyle, then you're probably a fan of new experiences. Since the "same job for life" concept disappeared a generation ago, people have increasingly questioned why staying in one career field is necessary. If you can't climb a traditional career ladder anyway, then why not seek new and varied working experiences. Welcome to the world of portfolio careers.

How to Make Freelancing Actually Work

We are still learning what it looks like to be a successful freelancer. There's probably no single correct way to nail this lifestyle. However, some useful advice has certainly emerged.

If you're thinking of taking this route, then remember:

  • Keep one or two reliable income sources. Consider an anchor-orbiter model, in which you have one or two steady roles (the anchor), with other work which is more flexible, orbiting around this main income source. This works especially well for people who want to keep some form of a steady job on a part-time basis and build a freelance income on the side.
  • Build up an emergency fund. And learn to budget as a freelancer. With no fixed income, budgeting becomes more complex, even before you start to worry about paying taxes and keeping up insurance and other necessary payments.
  • Nothing is forever. If you try the portfolio life and it is not for you, there is no reason why you can't take your newly acquired skills and experiences back into a traditional role. In fact, the broadened horizons of having worked independently might even mean you can find a better role than ever.

What's your best advice for others looking to follow in your footsteps? Tell us in the comments!

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