For the longest time, Archana’s job as a marketing manager in a company owned by one of the world's top billionaires was a daily hell filled with many disappointments.
Apart from the ridiculously low pay, the work hours extended well into the weekends and the work itself was creatively stifling. Her reporting manager would vigorously mansplain her and very evidently looked down on employees who dared to take a sick leave. All of this wrecked her mental health to the point where she’d be unable to have a proper conversation with her family or partner for weeks on end.
“Quitting such a job, as is the case with the most toxic of relationships, is easier said than done,” Archana, who preferred using just her first name to avoid legal repercussions from her former employer, told VICE. “But I decided I had had enough when they slashed our salaries in the pandemic. Instead of jumping into another job, though, I looked into how I could secure contracts with companies to work as a freelancer but with a retainer in hand. That way, I could have the financial security I need too.”
According to the Cambridge dictionary, a permalancer is someone who works permanently, or for a long period of time, for a particular employer as a freelancer. Permalancers sit somewhere between a regular staffer and a freelancer and are further defined by written or unwritten contracts outlining a steady set of deliverables over a time-bound period. The steady income at the end of the month (or whatever the decided period is) but without being bound to follow the office rules set for full-timers serves as the biggest draw for permalancers. This also means you have a potentially infinite income stream since you’re not just bound to one job, and consequently, one salary.
On the other side of it, though, permalancers usually don’t get access to workplace benefits like health insurance and paid leaves. Some companies mask their efforts to cut costs with permalancing offers that can turn out to be predatory and abusive.
In 2018, Bloomberg reported that almost half of Google’s workforce is made of “contractors (read permalancers) who don’t receive the same benefits as direct employees.” Recently, various employees of Conde Nast, a global publishing house (that owns titles such as Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair) came together with demands to get their union recognised and end permalance abuse.
In some cases, particularly with exploitative conditions, permalance abuse might just border on being illegal. Recently, Medium and Epicurious advertised for “full-time freelance” gigs that included working for 40 hours a week with no employer benefits. In my own case, a publishing house that otherwise paid me Rs 10,000 ($130) for an article proposed a permalance set-up where I needed to churn out 20 feature-length articles a month at the rate of just Rs 3,000 ($40) a piece. I was barely starting out and the editor tried hard to convince me to take this up. I found out later that she’d indeed hired two fresh graduates for that pay – ridiculously below industry standards. The website’s monthly target of 130 digital articles had to be met at any cost, or rather at no cost.
“If a company is exploitative, they will be exploitative regardless of whether you’re a permalancer or full-time,” said Nishant Saini, who quit his job as a corporate lawyer five years ago and started looking to score permalancing gigs shortly after. “What is the average health of the work culture of the companies that you hope to permalance for? Do they have unrealistic targets even for their most loyal full-time employees who have stuck around for years? What is their standing in the market, beyond just the prestige and turnover? These are important questions you should ask.”
If a permalance gig becomes toxic, it defeats the very purpose of quitting a full-time job. For a beginner like me, the exploitative offer could have been a golden ticket to some sort of financial stability but at the cost of other freelancing options because I’d have no time for them, thus stifling my creativity and undermining my mental health.
According to a report by freelancing website Upwork, nearly half of the working Gen Z population have chosen to go freelance. One of the biggest corollaries of the post-pandemic Great Resignation was people opting for the freelance lifestyle and, by extension, permalance. The young adult population vastly values autonomy over toxic productivity even though permalancing can sometimes border on the latter. So, while having written or unwritten permalance contracts with companies, setting boundaries and having a clear demarcation of your deliverables becomes paramount.
In Saini’s case, the initial permalance gigs were borderline abusive – not just from his bosses but coworkers too. “They would go out of their way to make sure I knew my place in the pecking order,” he said. “When a client directly approached me, something I would’ve taken to my reporting manager anyway, my colleagues banded together and accused me of actually instigating a coup.”
Saini chose to end that contract soon after. He learned that doing research on the work culture of permalance gigs is crucial. As a corporate lawyer, he still ends up putting in the long hours, but he is self-assured in his selection of clients with no petty colleagues lurking or unrealistic deadlines imposed on him.
Nivedita Pawar, a veteran journalist who was a magazine editor for 20 years, quit full-time work eight years ago. She said that having a diverse portfolio goes a long way in ensuring one does not settle for unsatisfactory, abusive permalance gigs.
“I wanted more time with my daughter and have the liberty to think and ideate stories that I really wanted,” said Pawar, who covers a gamut of lifestyle beats. Her versatility helps her score gigs with different kinds of publications. “With my full-time job, I was on autopilot: commission stories, work on an occasional cover story, and put together the same magazine in a predictable way every month. It was a lot of logistics and I was doing everything but writing.”
Pawar lists three essentials for any permalancer, regardless of their area of work: Have a thick skin when it comes to rejections; maintain discipline and dig out all the inner motivation you can to push yourself on a daily basis; develop patience. “From writing marketing material for companies and working on brochures to feature stories, nothing should be too small for your ego. You have to be open to doing anything.”
In the case of Swetlana (who goes by a single name), too, flexibility in what she could offer helped her get solid gigs. As a documentary writer, permalancing seemed like a viable option for her after working for six months in a fledgling start-up. One of her current projects is with VICE Studios.
“Initially, I picked up credible independent projects as a freelancer that helped me build a diverse portfolio,” she said. “Now, I’m in a position where agencies can rely on me for almost everything from screenwriting and ideating on docuseries to even art direction.”
As a permalancer myself, I can say that the sense of contentment has always been the defining feature of permalancing – the safety that comes with stable gigs and having control over one’s workload is second to none.
According to a 2018 research by Upwork and Edelman, 76 percent of respondents said that they felt happier freelancing than they did in a traditional job, and more than half of the pool surveyed said that no amount of money would make them take up a traditional job.
“My relationship with those close to me improved because there was more breathing space,” said journalist Arzoo Dina, who quit full-time work five years ago. “But ultimately, I was able to prioritise my health over everything else because I could finally do things that made me happy.”
However, she acknowledges that living with her parents in a city like Mumbai gave her the financial buffer every permalancer needs. In cases where this is not possible, Dina suggests saving enough before quitting your nine-to-five and building that portfolio.
“Being a permalancer means you might be working on weekends and even holidays, so that can get tough for the people close to you,” said Dina. “But you need to set your own fixed hours and maybe take a day off when it gets too much. In the end, though, it’s a better trade-off, according to me. Why should I slog for a corporation when I could slog for myself?”