A generation ago, full-time employment was the goal for most people who work. There was an implied agreement surrounding it: show up consistently, be diligent, loyal and productive; in return, you’ll receive an increasingly attractive array of benefits—including creature comforts, job security, paid time off, health care, maybe a pension.
But there were drawbacks on both sides of the equation. Workers longed for greater job satisfaction, more day-to-day flexibility and better benefits; employers felt the need to maintain profitability by reducing expenses. The grand bargain didn’t exactly unravel so much as it evolved.
Today, though some of the outlines of traditional employment remain in place, millions of workers are striking out on their own. Should you? Consider these upsides and downsides to the gig economy:
Control: For many workers, there’s undeniable satisfaction in becoming independent. The ability to make your own decisions—all of them—without seeking approval. The sense of accomplishment. The excitement. These are all huge plusses for some people even as they learn to navigate client relationships.
Downside: you may be more risk-averse and prefer the structure of a corporate job. It’s a trade-off.
Hours: Billable hours are the new currency. You can take on enough work to stay über-busy for months and then dial your workload back if you need some me-time. No need to ask for overtime, if your company even offers it. Downside: Though you can work the hours you want, you’ll still be deadline-driven; get used to occasional all-nighters. Clients need to be able to depend on you even when you’d rather coast.
Meetings: Everyone loathes them, yet they proliferate. As a contractor, you won’t have to attend as many—especially if you’re working offsite, as most do. That lets you use your time more productively. Downside: sometimes you need face time to keep relationships running smoothly. Plus, meetings are billable.
Office politics: Always annoying, always counterproductive, and hard to avoid if you’re a full-timer. Contractors can afford to be more aloof because there’s less exposure to the petty behavior that sometimes occurs in offices.
Downside: It’s easier for team members to swipe at you if you’re not there every day. That means you may need extra-sensitive antennae. You’re responsible for making nice with everyone.
Variety: Independent contractors can avoid the pitfalls of always doing the same work within a narrow set of parameters. If you get bored easily and eschew routine, contracting can add excitement to your career and open up whole new professional avenues to explore. On the other hand: if you prefer to focus on doing one thing really well, the potential for variety might not resonate so much.
Downside: Some of those new directions you explore could turn into blind alleys, costing you time and money. And you may prefer the structure of a corporate job.
Benefits: Even if you work for an employee leasing organization that might offer benefits, independent contractors are responsible for many of their own benefits. The upside is that you can tailor them to your exact needs and can ditch the ones you find irrelevant. And while you have to pay for your own health insurance and other benefits, the cost is often deductible.
Contracting is not for everyone. Then again, neither is traditional employment. If you’re not sure, one alternative is to work for an agency that places contractors into long- and short-term assignments, like Conducerent. Either way, contracting is hard work. And for growing numbers of people, it’s more rewarding—psychically, logistically, financially—than traditional employment.