Adi Talwar

On a recent Monday, Licensed Massage Therapist Paula Moerland working on her client Bill McShane at her apartment located in the Upper West Side section of Manhattan.

For some clients, Paula Moerland is like a sha-woman or a sorceress, using her formidable hands to cleanse their bodies and minds of illness. For others, her massages are miraculous—relieving pain with gliding strokes, kneading movements and other healing touches. But while working with people’s bodies has been an extraordinary experience for Moerland, the way this 54-year-old licensed massage therapist earns her living in New York is quite common. In fact, many people her age are moving from full-time jobs to freelance in other careers.

With up to 35 percent of the U.S. workforce now freelancing—55 million workers, according to an Upwork and Freelancers Union survey—the gig economy seems to be best suited for tech-savvy Millennials who want to take advantage of flexible hours, work from home and be their own bosses. But statistics show that older workers like Moerland are looking for similar flexibility and control in their careers—taking on greater risk late in life.

A 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says workers over 45 years old make up just over half of the workforce in this on-demand economy. The population aged 65 and older has the highest rate of self-employment—24.1 percent. And workers aged 55 to 64 make up 14.7 percent of freelancers, while those aged 45 to 54 are the third largest freelance group with 11.8 percent.

After working nearly 20 years as a full-time computer programmer, Moerland says that she was tired of being underpaid in an industry that was mostly dominated by men. So in 2000, she quit, and after working non-stop most of her life—starting out at McDonald’s when she was 16 years old and then moving onto programming two years later—she took some time off to explore different interests, including massage therapy. And soon she discovered that freelancing offered her the flexibility and independence to expand her interests into another career, while learning more things about herself and others.

“Freelancing makes you face the truth about who you are,” Moerland told City Limits. “It can be both exciting and terrifying because it challenges you to discover new things. But freelance doesn’t work if it’s not challenging.”

When Moerland touches a client’s spine or spleen to figure out what is going on with his or her body, the massage therapist can’t avoid thinking about her own future—and the way her health is testing the limits of her self-employment.

“You have to be very physically fit to do body work,” Moerland said. “And as my body ages and arthritis starts to take on, I can’t work the hours that I used to be able to. And I can’t pretend that it’s going to get better. So now I’m looking for other self-employment that doesn’t rely so much on my body.”

Other freelancers are coming to grips with a similar fate. Caught in a job market that is moving fast from full-time work with fixed hours and benefits to a gig economy—Upwork and the Freelancers Union say it is worth $1 trillion in 2016—with flexible schedules and remote employment, many freelancers find themselves working without a safety net.

Labor advocates say that the gig economy is exploitative because companies treat workers like independent contractors, which means that employers don’t have to pay employee benefits required by the law. As a result, freelancers often find themselves without unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and other protections.

And as more companies look towards freelancers to fill their needs—and some employers even strategize to replace full-time employees with contractors because they can save up to 30 percent in payroll costs—gig economy workers will have to step up to renegotiate social commitments like health insurance, retirement and other benefits that companies (and the government) traditionally cover.

One such social commitment that is changing the geography of the workplace coincides with the Affordable Care Act. A 2016 gig economy study by Future Workplace and Field Nation says that the law prompted almost one-third of companies to cut healthcare benefits, and 74 percent to hire more freelancers. Another survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York similarly found that companies were also cutting jobs because of rising healthcare costs—17 percent of service sector firms and 21 percent of manufacturers said they were cutting workers in response to ACA requirements. But from the independent contractor perspective, affordable health care—and other benefits like student loan forgiveness—has empowered many freelancers and entrepreneurs to work for themselves.

It is important to note, however, that 20 percent of full-time freelancers were still uninsured in 2016. And this percentage may change depending on how the government restructures healthcare. But while insurance remains a top concern, the decline of other benefits and related factors also compelled full-time employees to take on freelance work. Decreased access to company pension plans (which has dropped from 60 percent in 1982 to just 14 percent today), the rising cost of living (average rents have gone up 12 percent) and longer periods of unemployment have driven more workers to self-employment.

These conditions, nonetheless, have emboldened older freelancers like Judi Radice Hays, a 57-year-old who after working over two decades in advertising and marketing started to freelance full-time as a social media strategist just one year ago in New York.

“Whether you are in your 20s or 50s, you need to have the willingness to adapt and learn,” Hays said. “I don’t think age matters as much for success more than your willingness to learn something new about the way you work and wanting to do it. I think freelancing is more of an attitude.”

For Hays, succeeding as a freelancer not only means renegotiating the terms of the workplace, but also redefining what work means for you today—shifting both her body and mind to become more agile, and learning how to find opportunities in a new gig economy when old manufacturing era workers only see losses.

Sixty-three percent of workers surveyed in 2016 say they choose to freelance because they want to—full-time freelancers are motivated by freedom and flexibility, while part-timers are driven by the opportunity to make extra money. And even though Hays’ adventure as a gig worker was forced by an unexpected layoff, freelancing empowers her to overcome obstacles that otherwise could limit her in the workforce.

“Part of not working for somebody is you get to call your own shots,” Hays said. “That’s good and bad. But I found that in the job market there’s a lot of ageism. And even though I had all the experience, typically the employers were looking for a culture fit. They wanted someone younger and I couldn’t quite bridge that gap. And that made me realize that it was probably time to go on my own.”

While some employers and freelancers are hoping to deregulate or decentralize the labor market to favor more flexibility and independence in the gig economy, others are pushing to extend benefits like health insurance and pension by making them more portable. And this could mean shifting the responsibility of traditional benefits from companies to state or federal governments.

But whichever direction employment takes, freelancers say that the future of America’s workforce will not only rely on their flexibility and independence. The stability of contract workers will also need to be rooted in the core values they share with their networks, families and communities—the awareness that your work impacts others.

“Freelancing is not only about you. You have to do it because your clients are depending on you, and your business is depending on you, and your family is depending on you,” said Nancy Ruzow, a 59-year-old who free-lanced over three decades in greater New York as a graphic designer.

Freelancers are often described as loners, cowboys and cowgirls who roam from place to place in search of work. But for Ruzow, the key to being a freelancer is seeing the bigger picture—that while freelancers work independently, they are all interconnected. And this greater social awareness could help freelancers come together as a community, elevate the gig economy to a fair work model that protects the quality of work, the value of experience, and supports a wider safety net of benefits for all.

“I think that people in my field are affected by a lot of companies that feel that they do not need to have full-time employees,” Ruzow said. “There’s a perception that anyone with a computer can do your work cheaper somewhere else. And as a result people have a hard time getting full-time benefits.”

Critics of the gig economy say that freelancers are most vulnerable because they are isolated. And this puts them at a higher risk of being undervalued, moving through a system that breaks them down into spare parts. But freelancers say that their work is teaching them important networking skills to develop meaningful business-contractor and client-contractor relationships. And these networks could be crucial in negotiating a fairer work model.

“You don’t connect for the sake of connecting,” Hays said. “Freelancing is a two-way street. You need to give something back. And networking is a way of taking online relationships offline so that we can better serve and help one another to mutually benefit.”