Why do we duck and weave whenever someone asks what is a freelancer in Australia? Exactly what are we afraid of admitting? Every time I have used freelancer as a definition before 2020, people drew dust bunnies on the floor.

The definition didn’t feel like it fit. Or the word was unattractive.

Why do we have such trouble admitting that’s what we are?

Photo by George Kourounis on Unsplash

Australian freelancers will often refer to themselves as small business owners, sole traders, contractors, and the self-employed. Or they take titles like founder, director (legally this isn’t exactly correct), or refer to themselves via vocation such as copywriter, designer, developer, creative director, accountant.

There is even head honcho and all manner of other cute titles about guru, chick, rockstar, whizz, and whatever else is fashionable.

On rare occasions, you may have someone who relishes the gig economy label (spoiler alert: most true freelancers still don’t like this one).

What is a freelancer in terms of community and accepted definition however lacks support. Well, it did until recently, anyway.

Let’s look at what is a freelancer in Australia and why we’ve historically had such a hard time with getting the word out  

History is on our side

The Freelance Jungle attracts attention. Clients and other business people often ask me, ‘what is a freelancer anyway?’

I love busting out the historical meaning.

A free lance comes from the idea of being a lance free of ownership. So, it was a knight who was not in service or contract to the royal court.  They used their lance and other equipment on jobs of their choosing, rather than being sent to fight the King’s war.

When you look at it in that context, you can see the definition and distinction. AND you get to see why I love the word freelance so much.

It means you are in charge of your own destiny.

Also, it means something to the law and coaches you to set boundaries to boot: 

1)     As a freelancer, you automatically retain the copyright for the work produced until you decide otherwise. That means your client can’t use your work without paying you for it. It also means that the intellectual property behind the work stays with you, too. That’s really comforting to know when a client is using work, they refuse to pay you for, or they demand you stop doing your style of work based on using it to service them.

2)     A freelancer can choose who they work with. By definition, you don’t have to be that worker that compromises their values to get the job done. This is an enormously freeing idea. Like the knights, we choose what battles we aid and ones we walk away from. Knowing this means you can say no to crappy clients and silly jobs through empowerment.

3)     A freelancer’s work is built on value-based results, not hours in the saddle. Like the knights of old, the more battles you’ve been in or the greater your skill at avoiding defeat, the more money you can charge. No King asked a free lancer how many hours they had in the saddle. We as modern-day freelancers need to keep this in mind. Freelancers often quibble about market rates and worry unnecessarily about who charges what. We’re not designed to be compared. We acquire experience each time we work. Our clients are paying for outcomes, not for us to keep the desk warm.

Once you realise we’re actually pretty bad arse, it starts to become easier to accept your freelance status.

Why the modern-day freelance community can’t agree

In a lot of ways, Australian freelancers have walked away from the title freelancer.

Common rationales for this include:

·        It has free in the title and this sends the wrong message (hopefully now you realise that is free from ownership, not sans payment!)

·        It’s connected to prominent platforms and it makes it harder to charge decent rates

·        It isn’t an accurate description of all the work I do

·        It seems transient in nature whereas I am not

·        My title sounds much more professional than freelancer

·        My clients don’t know what a freelancer is

You get the picture. A lot of the story is about being reduced or diminished in value. Usually, when someone gets awkward about being referred to as a freelancer, they come with their ready-made title.

And I let them.

Honestly though, we have this weird self-hatred we need to get over. How can our clients take us seriously and give us respect if even we can’t utter the word?

We invite stigma by allowing others to define what our primary job title means.

Psychologically, we tell clients freelancers are less valuable by rejecting freelancing as our vocation. If you look at the ways disabled or queer or feminist have been reclaimed back as terms for the community by the community, it’s empowering. It underpins the pride movements to refuse to shy away from words based on outsider shame.

Maybe we need to do the same for freelance pride in Australia?

We need to be able to answer that what is a freelancer question with ‘a freelancer is me’. We can raise the definition by taking ownership and realigning it with the great work we do.

In short, our community doesn’t have to accept the definitions of the ignorant. Or ones given to us from those who benefit from us feeling small.

Necessity creates definition

In March 2020, I started a petition to highlight the need for freelancers assistance during COVID-19 in Australia. I had to prove we were an industry. You can’t prove you’re an industry if everyone is defining themselves 72 ways from Sunday. Or when they split that out across vocation, further industry definition, and so on.

Australian freelancers were horrified to find the line in the sand for their JobKeeper assistance was whether or not they were registered for GST.

I agree. It seems incredibly odd. It was later revised through the use of qualifying tools.

I can’t help but wonder how many more people could have been saved, had less stress, and would qualify now if we had some kind of formal definition we agreed on instead of having it given to us.

If the government are going to impose cut-offs on how they help you and who they help via definitions that don’t accurately describe us, shouldn’t we build a blanket term to challenge it?

Let’s put it another way.

In the survey the Freelance Jungle published last last year as The State of Australian Freelancing, of 560+ people, there were 120+ occupations. In a group of 6200+, there’s probably more variation still.

I see that as a case for using the word freelancer more than splintering it into other groups. It’s much easier to advocate to politicians and lawmakers (or anyone really) when you define the community doing the petitioning under one banner.

Defining what a freelancer is becomes extremely important. It’s a statistic we can quote. It’s a banner we can beneath.

Besides, it’s the values and nature in which a business operates that defines us. Not whether we are a psychologist, a theatre maker, or a web developer.

Having one word that says “here’s what to expect” is a great idea.

What is a freelancer anyway?

We have so much power as an amorphous group of professional people. Creatives, project managers, problem solvers, coaches, practical thinkers, builders of ideas and structures, people that know how to put on a show or produce an event, talk to the government or present a convincing case- we are a community that can help each other get what we want.

The areas we service help us navigate other areas of the world. We have science, arts, big business, start-up, experience in governance and communications- all kinds of things to drawn on.

As a group, we know how to create messages, distribute them, build the communities and networks, shift the goods, make the goods, and find the funds to do it.

We can engage the nation in our plight online and off speaking the language of story, art, business, governance, and more.

If we focus on bringing that together, that is. Instead of fighting over definition and investing in segregation.

The next time someone asks you ‘what do you do?’, don’t be afraid of the word that binds us.

What is a freelancer is an attitude. And we all have that in spades! 


The Freelance Jungle has a Facebook community, virtual catch-ups for stress reduction and networking, and a commitment to education via podcasts, blogs, and online learning.



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NSW 2528