In the summer of 2019, I left a permanent job to consult and teach full-time. I had an intense desire to pursue an independent career path, so I could take what I’d learned from my previous experiences in leadership roles at digital media startups and develop my own news outlet on my terms.
Much like other Canadians who choose this path, self-employment also meant “independence, freedom and being my own boss” — the reason that one-third of our country’s self-employed workers decide to strike out on their own, according to Statistics Canada. The “nature of the job” and “work-family balance” are the second and third most-cited reasons, respectively.
To be sure, “self-employed” is an amorphous term, including in my field of journalism, a relatively centralized industry that’s historically had a linear path to success. But that path has been disrupted by precarious employment, the rise of the “passion economy,” and industry-wide exhaustion with media consolidation and broken business models.
While these trends are journalism-specific, many of them — including precarious employment — apply to other industries, too. In fact, it’s the sixth most popular reason why Canadians pursue an independent career path. Many rank-and-file journalists, especially younger ones, are poorly compensated and often forced to take on low-paying work with pitiful benefits and long hours. That’s why I’d rather take the risk of self-employment because there’s no guarantee you’ll earn more under an employer these days.
Apparently, millions of other Canadians feel the same way.
In 2018, 2.9 million Canadians were self-employed, which accounts for 15 per cent of total employment. That’s up from 1.2 million, or 12 per cent of total employment, in 1976. Among all self-employed workers, those who were incorporated (like me) increased from 21 per cent in 1976 to 46 per cent in 2018. Meanwhile, those who were unincorporated (like gig workers) fell to 53 per cent from 68 per cent during the same time period.
Based on COVID-19’s extensive margin impact — that is, its impact on the number of individuals working during the pandemic — incorporated self-employment remained stable, while unincorporated self-employment rose relative to February, a trend likely driven by job losses in the formal employment sector, according to Finances of the Nation, a project led by academic researchers that analyzes Canadian public finance data.
During economic downturns, workers may be “pushed” into self-employment when the labour market deteriorates and there are fewer jobs available. But in a stable economy, workers can also be “pulled” into self-employment, which was what happened in my case. Canadians who work in similar fields as me — that is, professional, scientific and technical services — have the second-highest rate of self-employment among all industries. Agriculture has long topped the list, though self-employment has fallen for this industry over the years due to industrialization.
Indeed, “self-employed” means different things to different people. For me, it involves four main categories: (1) teaching; (2) speaking; (3) consulting and coaching; (4) writing, reporting and editing. During my first full year of self-employment from January 2020 to January 2021, I made over six figures across my four main revenue streams, which is more than I’ve earned in any previous full-time job outside of one role I had in New York City (media salaries in NYC and Washington, D.C. are widely known to be much higher than elsewhere).
I’m not out here trying to make bank, but I am trying to earn a sustainable long-term income — at a level I deserve based on my experience and profile — doing what I love. Compared to the limitations I experienced as an employed worker, I feel incredibly grateful to now have a career that allows me the autonomy and flexibility to pursue every facet of journalism I love, from editorial to business and everything in between. The majority of the opportunities I get are from inbound requests, which fortunately helps me preserve more of my time for working and less for hustling.
Certainly, there are cons to self-employment, including no benefits or job security, so it’s not for everyone. Still, the pros are plentiful. As someone who’s self-employed, my boss lets me call the shots, so I can pick and choose work I enjoy doing (I’m a firm believer that when you do what you love, you’ll excel in it). I get to collaborate with many different groups and people, including some of the sharpest minds in journalism around the world. Because I’m not beholden to one company, I can be bolder in my advocacy work and criticism of status quo practices in my industry. I also don’t have to work with jerks; while it’s very important to be able to collaborate with colleagues who have different opinions or working styles than you, nobody should be forced to tolerate abusive or dishonest behaviour, especially when it’s systemic.
I wouldn’t rule out working for an employer in the future, but if and when I do, it’ll be because I want to — not because I have to.
Anita Li is a media strategist and consultant with a decade of experience as a multi-platform journalist at outlets across North America. She is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and Centennial College. Li is the co-founder of Canadian Journalists of Colour, a rapidly growing network of BIPOC media-makers in Canada, as well as a member of the 2020-21 Online News Association board of directors. To keep up with Li, subscribe to The Other Wave, her newsletter about challenging the status quo in journalism.