The trouble with Rishi.
In March 2020, Covid closed down the UK. And Rishi Sunak (who is Chancellor of the Exchequer here, a typically confusing British way of saying that he holds the nation’s purse strings) made a promise. No one would be left unable to pay their rent or mortgage, to buy food or pay bills.
“To all those at home right now, anxious about the days ahead, I say this,” he pronounced. “You will not face this alone.”
He then outlined provisions that – naturally – excluded all of the self-employed. There were over five million of us in the UK at the start of 2020. So in the weeks that followed, this caused a bit of a fuss. Eventually, it was revised. And at first, I heaved a big sigh of relief. We’d be OK.
But as it turns out, I was still excluded.
Along with three million others – including my husband. In fact, very few freelance creatives got anything like the 80% of their earnings most employed people were given while on furlough.
This was devastating. My husband couldn’t do his job at all, and most of my work was wiped out overnight. At the time, I was coaching mainly face-to-face in London. My best-paid work was with musicians preparing for promotion, tours or recording projects. Or actors prepping for a film, TV show or play. All of which were of course cancelled.
I was scared. And angry. But then I picked myself up, and gave myself a stern reminder: you’ve been here before.
Most self-employed people have.
We’ve all been through periods when the work dries up. A big contract is cancelled. Or we’re paid absurdly late for a job, yet the bills keep coming.
In the first lockdown, I spoke to friends who were writers, roadies, designers, photographers, performers. And we were all doing pretty much the same.
While others were watching Tiger King and baking sourdough, the self-employed switched over to emergency mode. We were stocking up on pasta and rice for cheap meals. Cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Calling regular clients to see how they were coping with the crisis, what their needs were, and if we could help.
Those that could, pivoted.
- At first I was coping with my mum being desperately ill with Covid. But after she came out of hospital, I improved my website, did more coaching via Zoom, and started self-publishing books. It’s been hard work, and a steep learning curve. We’ve used a lot of savings. But we’ll be OK. (By the way, thanks to all of those in the NHS who saved my mum’s life. And I’m sorry you were treated contemptuously in the latest Budget, too.)
- One of my actor clients quickly fell into tutoring City executives on how to present well on Zoom.
- A friend who designs costumes for the opera created then sold clever tool carousels for crowded workbenches.
- A kindly group of fashion folk started sewing scrubs for the NHS, using their skills for the greater good.
- A cabaret singer turned himself into a human jukebox, singing requests live on Facebook from his bathroom. (It had the best acoustics in his apartment.)
- Comedians did live shows on Zoom from their living room.
- Musicians did more writing and recording at home.
- A fashion designer friend started Instagram Live events from her home. She drank wine, talked about the clothes, put outfits together – and sold loads, without any fancy marketing.
- One artist friend started selling art from her front window; another is now selling pages from his lockdown sketchbook on etsy.
- Everyone who could took more of their business online.
Those that couldn’t, improvised.
Our roadie friend quickly got part-time work as a food delivery driver. My husband’s barber is now on the checkout at a local supermarket. Another friend – a theatre designer – is working in a vaccine centre.
I’m not saying any of this is ideal. I’ve had enough tearful moments with friends and with clients to know how hard this has been. Especially in the creative industries, support for which has been an afterthought throughout the crisis.
Some people – especially those working in theatre and live performance – will struggle to recover. And in the new budget this March, millions of the self-employed were excluded from help yet again.
But the point is, we’re used to being flexible. Learning new skills. Adapting to the needs of the marketplace. It’s what we do.
Yet financial institutions are suspicious of us.
They tend to see us as flaky, a bad risk. A few years ago – despite having the top credit score possible, never missing a mortgage payment and supplying about 1000 pieces of evidence about our income – we were denied a new mortgage deal that would have been £200 a month less than we currently pay. On the grounds that we couldn’t afford it.
Most self-employed people are familiar with such frustrations. Whatever we ask financial institutions for, the computer inevitably says no.
No matter how steady our income, how many different sources it comes from, freelancers are considered high risk. Especially if they work in creative fields. Banks will do everything possible not to work with us, and especially not to lend us money.
I’ve never really understood this.
Someone with a supposedly ‘secure’ job can be sacked or made redundant overnight. If they’re considered old, if their skill set is out-moded, or they’re in an industry that is being disrupted by technology or market trends, finding another job won’t be easy.
Yet we are well used to making own own money. And creating new and exciting things out of thin air. Or finding clients and solving problems for them. So we are surely far more resilient and able to cope with change. Most of us who’ve been successfully self-employed for years have prepared for lean times, by building up savings.
Self-employment blends well with family life, too.
Your hours are more flexible. You can cope better with sudden crises and school holidays. And you don’t have to apologise or grovel to a boss if your child is ill. Or if you want to go see their school concert or play.
Yet I’ve recently coached a successful artist, a designer and a musician, all of them expecting their first child. All were put under unbearable pressure by their families to be more ‘sensible’ now. To quit messing about and get a ‘proper’ job.
My own mum, bless her, anxiously urged me to retrain as a secretary once my son was born. She saw this as a secure, reliable job. Even when I was editing a national newspaper magazine with a PA of my own.
It’s time such attitudes changed.
In the past year, the sector of the British population identifying as self-employed has shrunk dramatically. The only way to access even the most basic government help is by registering as unemployed.
But as things reopen over the next few months, we’ll be back.
We’ll be the engine, driving economic recovery. And knitting our social fabric back together. We’ll be reopening theatres and nightclubs, shops and restaurants. Organising festivals and parties. Giving people much-needed opportunities to gather together and have fun.
We’re stronger than anyone gives us credit for.
We’re endlessly inventive. We’d rather not do it alone, quite frankly. But we’ll find a way, with or without help from government or banks. As I said earlier: we’ve been here before.
If you’re rebuilding your creative business and want to start from firm foundations, I have a ten-day course to help. It offers 10 emails, each covering an aspect of freelance creativity. And it’s free! Sign up for it here.