The ages of freelancing

Recently, I’ve been pondering age a lot. Last September I turned 45, and I’m at that point where I’m starting to feel it. Not in a terribly dramatic way, because I am fortunate enough to be in good health, but more a notion that I need to take a little more care of myself, that I am not as physically invincible as I was once privileged enough to believe. I begin to have a sense of my own shelf-life.

Songs can jolt me back twenty years to a more carefree time, and I start to question all the decisions I made in my younger adult life that got me to this point. Intellectually I am comfortable with the fact that I must accept those decisions and work with where I am now, not where I might have been if – but emotionally, sometimes that jolt makes me catch my breath.

Professionally, I’m at an age where I think I’ve rendered myself unemployable. Not that people aren’t giving me plenty of work, because they are, but unemployable in the sense that it would be hard to find an employer who could meet my expectations of a full-time job. I’ve been freelancing for thirteen years, and finally I understand there’s no going back.

That age thing used to scare me. In my thirties I assumed that if the freelancing didn’t work out, I could find my way seamlessly back to the life I had before. I felt on a level with the people in the offices who were commissioning me. Sure, I was a little further along the children route, having had a baby at 34 and then another at 35, but otherwise I looked about the same age, I had the same cultural references, I could still have been them had I made slightly different choices. I thought maybe that likeness helped me get work, by remaining uppermost in people’s minds, and keeping my fingers in imaginary pies. I was being incredibly ageist, but not to anyone else. I was being ageist against my own career. The way I pictured it, it didn’t really exist past 40. Which would have been a problem had that actually come to pass.

Now, ten years later, I find I’m part of a lucky cohort of women who are empowered to talk about the positives of getting older – who are not scared to utter the word menopause, who let their hair go grey or dye it according to their own tastes, who are increasingly financially independent. And just as my location is irrelevant to most of my clients, so is my age. They haven’t stopped hiring me because I have wrinkles, or can remember a time when we used to post each other zip disks, or even printed letters.

I also now have friends and editorial colleagues who are ten, twenty or thirty years older than me, and who are working as much as they want to, and at the level they want to. They continue to inspire me with their accrued technical knowledge and general wisdom.

It will always be important to keep up with things. I attend conferences and take courses. I talk with other editors about aspects of good practice. I read blogs, and social media. If a job demands a skill I don’t have, I learn it. In terms of language, lately I’ve been being intensively schooled in youth-speak by my children and my partner’s children. Few things are as satisfying as making them cringe by parroting their words or expressions back at them wide-eyed with the context slightly off, apparently misunderstood, because what would I know? Ew, Mum, don’t ever say that again. Ew, Liz, how embarrassing. Eye roll.

I still sometimes wonder about how my career will change as I work through the next twenty years before I (hopefully) begin to think of taking on less paid editing work and perhaps increasing the amount of volunteering I do, or creative work that is not guaranteed to pay. But these days the emphasis is very much on wonder rather than worry. The longer I go on freelancing, the more I’m grateful for the fact that I don’t know what will happen, and I never will. The knack to keeping it going is not just about doing a good job. It’s about having the resilience and creativity to navigate uncharted waters, for years and then decades. It’s about responding to what’s needed, over and over again and in subtly different ways each time. And that aptitude needn’t deteriorate with age. If I nurture it, perhaps that can get better.

20 Comments on “The ages of freelancing”

  1. Love this article. So much! Thanks for sharing. I worked full time at day jobs from ages 16 to 50, doing some freelance editing on the side for the final five years before becoming fully self-employed at 50. Three years in, I can’t imagine EVER going back to a day job. The freedom and flexibility of self-employment is a joy. My clients (mostly PhD candidates, so often millennials, I guess) neither know nor care how old I am, how I dress, whether my hair is grey, or what other activities I juggle alongside their editing. They’re just happy that I help them with their writing, and I in turn am grateful to have a steady stream of fascinating and lucrative work. When will I retire? I have no idea. Provided I keep my faculties, I’ll probably keep working for another decade (or two). 

    Have a great day.

    Best wishes
    Karin in Canberra

  2. I love this, and it gives me hope for the future! I have been freelancing for a year now but at the start I kept telling myself I’d go back to an office job eventually – only now I don’t want to anymore! The freedom and flexibility to work and learn at my own pace is too wonderful. I don’t know anyone that has freelanced for a long time, and as a full-time job, so it is heartening to see that it is possible to be successful still past a certain age.

    1. I feel so similarly! When I first quit my day job to focus on freelancing, I continued applying to in-house publishing jobs, still thinking I wanted to wind up in one eventually. As my freelancing became more successful, my enthusiasm for job applications dwindled. I love the freedom and empowerment that freelancing gives me! I love getting to do actual involved edits on books that I’d never get to touch as a junior editor at a pub house. Currently I’m doing three substantive edits and two copy edits on books, and I wouldn’t trade it for a junior editor job in a million years.

      1. That’s a really good point – sometimes I forget exactly how little editing I did as an in-house editor. And as that’s the part of the job I love most (copyediting, also proofreading), it would be hard to give that up.

  3. Thank you! I too am unemployable but am happily freelancing well past most people’s retirement age. I love the ability to be productive, I love the mental stimulation and the intense focus the work requires, and I love that my clients value what I do and regularly let me know. Freelancing has turned out to be a gift for my mental and financial well-being. Great article!

  4. Love this post. I, too, have been ageist about my own career. People I went to grad school with are now department chairs or deans. I’ve worked just as hard as they have, so where is my status? But as I read your post, something clicked in my head. I’m free to define what seniority looks like. That may mean mentoring younger colleagues, working with an online group to ensure that all are welcome, writing posts on my webpage about how my clients can overcome writing challenges. Who knows, someday I may even do an online course. But I have the ability to choose how I give back to my profession, which is a wonderful freedom. One of the best things about freelancing, in my opinion, is autonomy. I’ve been at it since 1995 and I’m still learning how to create the career I love!

    1. Yes, that’s exactly it, isn’t it – the freedom to define our own career path. Thank you for reading! 🙂

  5. Though I am not a freelancer, this article resonated with me on so many levels. You make so much sense Liz Jones. Wonderful article!
    Best wishes!

  6. The knack is also in treating freelancing like a business – putting money aside for the future so we can retire comfortably, diversifying our client list so we aren’t dependent on any one project and can survive if one disappears, networking and marketing regularly to bring in new business, etc.
    I’ve been freelancing in writing, editing, proofreading, etc., full-time since 1984 and am a couple years past the official retirement age. I can see myself continuing to do this work for as many more years as I’m on the planet, but I could also retire tomorrow if I had to or wanted to. I love what I do, and how I do it!
    I’m probably “unemployable” in the sense that I’m so used to running my life on my own terms that no full-time job would be a good fit, in terms of flexibility of time and diversity of assignments. Ironically, I’ve had two such offers this very week and turned them both down because my freedom is more valuable than a regular paycheck, although I can see why some colleagues would be glad to get such offers.

    1. This is excellent advice, about putting money away for the future. (I’ve paid more attention to this myself in recent years, but I can still improve that aspect of things.) Thank you!

  7. This is such a great post! Thanks so much for sharing. I am just starting out on my freelancing journey (now part-time, more writing than editing). It was very refreshing and motivating to read this.

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