Last year was considered important for independent workers otherwise known as freelancers, with prominent new attention given by media and politicians to the emergence of the “gig economy.”

Locally, Hawaii Business magazine examined the gig economy and independent workers in an article in its February 2016 edition titled “All Work And No Job.” The article noted that 98,490 individuals in Hawaii are classified as “non-employer businesses” or self-employed professionals.

Last year was also significant for me personally: It was my 20th anniversary as a freelance writer and journalist.

For me, the gig economy is not an abstraction, a political talking point or simply a topic of passionate social media discussion, but the economic and fiscal construct within which I have worked for two decades. In short, the gig economy is my life.

I’m essentially a contractor of sorts, except I construct magazine articles instead of office towers. As a lexical contractor, I always try to bring my “projects” in on time, since my fee depends on it.

The rapid, global growth of Uber, with its independent contractor drivers, is held up by many as emblematic of the emerging "gig economy."
The rapid, global growth of Uber, with its independent contractor drivers, is held up by many as emblematic of the emerging “gig economy.” Mark Warner via Flickr

When I first started in the freelance writing business in the 1990s, you established your bona fides as a journalist by writing hard news and features for print publications. I ended up as a contributor at times to newspapers like Pacific Business News and Honolulu Weekly. As a journalist back in the years when Bill Clinton was a relatively new president, blogs didn’t exist yet, and “online” was where I stood at the bank to cash my checks.

Now 20 years later, Honolulu has only one daily newspaper instead of the two it had when I first started as a writer. Honolulu Weekly has shuttered its doors, and there are fewer local outlets for real news in Hawaii. One bright spot has been Civil Beat, which is at least trying to do some old-fashioned reporting in the newer medium of the Internet.

In the first few years I worked as a freelancer, some people I met in the islands thought what I did was slightly odd and different. Others likely thought of it as a phase — I would eventually end up selling out to some large corporation and get a “steady job.”

It’s 2016. I haven’t sold out. I never worked for a large corporation. I work for my interests — not those of anyone else. In short, nothing has changed for me.

What has changed is the larger economy. Working as a freelancer is no longer considered so odd. The growth of firms such as Uber and Airbnb has demonstrated that business need not be conducted simply according to the usual paradigms, that new patterns and/or different business models applied to other industries can create new successful firms.

Does being a freelancer work in Hawaii’s economy? I have have to say for me it does. I’m glad freelancers are finally getting their due.

These days, some people I meet treat me as if I’m the star of an infomercial and ask me questions. “How do you survive in your business?” and “What’s the secret?”

I hate to disappoint, but there is no secret. As a freelance writer, survival depends on your ability to make deals that benefit you. Every time I write an article or item for money, I am making a deal. A terrible deal nets you very little money. A terrific deal makes you a nice chunk of money. Call it The Art of the Writing Deal.

Being a proprietor of sorts within the gig economy means you have to be able to have to ability to get gigs and thus bring in paying business for yourself on a persistent and consistent basis. Whether you work as an artist or in high tech or in the music industry and any other component of this economy, your skills, education and even professional demeanor and behavior are crucial to your survival.

Does being a freelancer work in Hawaii’s economy? I have have to say for me it does. Granted, I have to put up with Hawaii’s high cost of living like any employer or employee. However, working for profit and not wages allows me to have a little more money to spend on what I need and a whole lot of freedom and independence to work the way I want.

What’s nice not only about the attention afforded to independent workers through articles like the one in Hawaii Business is that we are no longer simply the dirty little secret of the state’s and nation’s economy. I’m glad freelancers are slowly, finally getting their due.

The gig economy isn’t coming soon. It’s already here.

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