"Once you quit, you'll never go back to a full-time job."
Those were the words uttered to me by a friend who had already trodden the path I was about to take, leaving the security of a senior post at a large corporation for the precarious world of freelance work. Two years on, and despite several anxious moments teetering on the edge of a financial precipice, the words have rung resoundingly true.
I thought about them again when I read last week how the number of freelancers in Britain has increased by 36% since 2008, to 1.91 million. Collectively they contributed £109bn ($159bn) to the economy in 2015, according to data published by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE). Other reports have suggested this trend will not merely continue, but accelerate in the coming years.
This does not surprise me in the slightest. It is not only the natural result of several current economic and technological trends, but it is – in my experience - the simplest way for any worker to take back ownership of their own life.
That is what I have found in the couple of years since I decided to leave my editorial management position at a national newspaper. I had spent eight years working extremely long days, typically beginning with an ear to Radio 4's Today programme and ending with a sleepy eye on BBC2's Newsnight, with at least 12 hours of relentless desk-bound work in between.
Freelancing is the simplest way for any worker to take back ownership of their life
I had no desire to progress to the tiers above me, where these same pressures would be intensified even further, and decided to free myself from the bonds of a work contract rather than make a sideways move within the company.
But, and this is perhaps where my timing was fortunate, I was able to bid farewell to everyone at my leaving do and then return four days later to start freelance work in the same office. And I have kept it up, working a couple of days a week on my old job alongside other freelance journalists, while exploring alternative side projects.
More and more people can do this because the nature of the workplace is changing rapidly, as the IPSE reports shows. It now offers opportunities that were unimaginable just a few years previously. A quick Google search uncovers all manner of freelance work being offered to writers, designers, lawyers, accountants, IT staff – to name just a few – by companies that have abandoned their rigid ways of operating.
Various economic forces have consigned the old corporate culture, with its idea of a 'job for life', to the dustbin of history. The liberalising market reforms of the 1980s and 1990s created a flexible labour market that worked both ways - giving firms greater freedom to hire and fire but also loosening the ties of loyalty that bound workers to their employer.
Rapid advances in technology and the reality of the intimately-connected, 24-hour globalised economy means employees can work from anywhere, at any time
Since then, rapid advances in technology and the reality of the intimately connected, 24-hour globalised economy means employees can work from anywhere, at any time. This is the perfect context for flexible and part-time work to flourish. Throw in the added factor of the redundancies and recession that followed the 2008 crash, and it is clear why the freelance economy has mushroomed in the last eight years.
The change is bringing some clear benefits for companies. A friend running his own business has told me how he uses highly specialised freelancers on specific projects for a few days or weeks, getting targeted results he could not obtain so easily from the more general skills of his permanent staff.
This work is often rewarded at a considerably higher rate, pro rata, than being employed on a full-time salary. But it doesn't mean freelancers are flush with cash – far from it. I often have a feeling of trepidation when approaching my mortgage payment day every month, or when I see a particularly hefty bill drop through the letterbox.
I now work when I wish to. By and large, I also do the sort of work I wish to
I do earn less than before, and have had to shrink my expenditure accordingly. The whole process has required a mental recalibration, but it is one that judges the slight fall in income against a huge gain in free time. And that is the whole point – and great benefit – of going freelance.
I now work when I wish to. By and large, I also do the sort of work I wish to. Meanwhile my mind has been allowed to turn to other projects I can take on – that book I never wrote and the restaurant I never opened. They will probably remain unwritten and unopened, but at least I can think of them again. My mind is free to wander.
I have the time, once more, to read books for sheer pleasure. And I have become a film buff again by catching up on all those movies I missed in the last decade, while grabbing the new ones when they come out at the cinema. I have long boozy lunches with fellow freelancers – a welcome change from picking up a soggy sandwich to gobble quickly at my desk.
And I can spend an entire day with my young daughter, drawing rudimentary pictures of animals, watching cartoons and seeing her howl in laughter as I get myself entangled in a climbing frame designed for children aged under ten.
In short, I have restored what people call a work/life balance. But that has always struck me as a false dichotomy. Surely going to work is no less a part of life than taking a holiday?
I would prefer to describe it as bringing a better balance to life itself. A sense of equilibrium and tranquility.
And the feeling it transmits is contagious. When former colleagues ask me how I manage to get by as a freelance, I see the cogs in their mind whirring into action and exploring their own possibilities as I set out this alternative way of working.
In time, they may join me on the other side. And I doubt they'll ever go back.