Freelancers are suffering a recession-linked double-whammy – not only are clients and customers cutting budgets, but the newly unemployed are swelling the ranks of the self-employed, and driving fees downward.

This New York Time article (found via the Copywriter Maven) looks at the recession’s effect on the self-employed (and under-employed), and touches on an often-overlooked emotional side-effect (we’ll get to that later). First, the numbers:

Recession Takes a Toll on Freelance Livelihoods – NYTimes.com

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the number of self-employed workers who say they are working “part time for economic reasons,” which means that they work fewer than 35 hours a week because they can’t line up more employment. In March 2008, 622,000 self-employed workers across the country put themselves in this category. A year later, the number had almost doubled, to nearly 1.1 million. “What you can see in this data spells real trouble for these people,” says Susan Houseman, a senior economist for the Upjohn Institute, a nonprofit research center.

OK, the numbers are terrible, but they only tell a piece of the story. There’s an emotional toll that doesn’t get a column in the unemployment statistics:

That trouble is about not paying bills. It’s also about the vertigo of falling out of the middle class. “We talk about it as middle-class poverty,” said Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, which has 70,000 members in New York City. “Your frame of reference, when you think of yourself as middle class, doesn’t include being scared about making ends meet, realizing that welfare and food stamps are your only option. Psychologically, that shift is devastating.”

Interestingly, the researcher also noted the different responses between those who lost jobs and freelancers who lost clients – an observation which will resonate with many freelancers:

Venkatesh sees a difference in how freelancers talk about the recession compared with workers who have been laid off. “They’re more alone, and they can’t help but feel like they did something wrong because they’re losing relationships with individual clients,” he says. “They think of themselves as ministering to their clients, so they also feel guilty about no longer helping them.”

It’s natural to develop relationships with regular clients – especially if you’re working hard, getting good feedback, and functioning as part of the team.

It’s easy to forget it’s a business relationship.

And when the client stops calling, it’s just as easy to blame yourself.

Don’t do it.

Sure – take a hard look at your business with an eye to making yourself more relevant. Are you offering the right services in a fast-changing marketing landscape?

But never forget this is business – and even the best agencies lose accounts, often for reasons far outside their control.

Add free-falling, recessionary marketing budgets into the mix, and suddenly, a certain amount of client loss can only be expected.

Do what you can to contain the damage. Beef up your service offerings. But don’t personalize the loss. Things happen, and getting depressed about it simply limits your ability to dust yourself off and find a new client – or develop a new offering.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.

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