How long will the shadow of the Corona Virus pandemic darken future history?
We do not know. Therefore, there's no way to know how much I should exposit COVID-19 in this here paragraph. Obviously, if I'm talking to readers in the short term, you're all sick of hearing about it. But did the pandemic gets cured by, say, 2021? Do I have to go back over what it was like for audiences in the 2030s? Or is it indelibly ground into the pages of history textbooks like the 1918 Spanish Flu was?
Just from this point, you can already see how Corona Virus affects media. There are things we could normally talk about that we can't talk about now. In my freelance online writing career spanning its third decade now, I've seen disruptions that I never would have seen before. Yet insight from my experience has helped me maintain a grip on the situation, and I'll start bypassing some of these aphorisms on to you:
Disaster-Proof Freelance Axioms:
#1: Money always goes SOMEWHERE.
No matter how much the economy in one place is crashing, no matter how many stockbrokers are throwing themselves off buildings, no matter how much the government panics and sends out stimulus checks, the money just went somewhere else. The global economy is very nearly a zero-sum game. Just because there's a recession, a depression, or a stock-market meltdown doesn't mean the money just got raked into a big pile and set on fire.
If you find yourself in a market sector that's burning out, by all means, get out of it as soon as possible. But go looking for the money somewhere else, because it's there. Later we will look at some markets which are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic while others are imploding. There are exceptions to this rule, but they're minor: (1) Markets do affect each other to some degree, and (2) when money does "disappear," it was fake inflated wealth that was attached to overvalued speculation.
#2: If you can't afford to live where you're living, move.
Wealth is relative to your immediate surroundings. Online freelancing can be done from anywhere in the world, as long as you have enough infrastructure to support basic technology and a decent Internet connection. I grew up in Southern California, but relocated to the Midwest. In the Midwest USA, my rent for a full house with a yard, basement, garage, and plenty of space is a figure that wouldn't get you a storage shed in south Cali.
No matter how cheap your wages, there are places in the world where that wage lets you live like royalty. Find those places. This is why 3rd-world countries with names most Americans can't spell compete on price with those same Americans. There are places in the world that will literally pay you to live there.
#3: The whole world isn't one big America.
Behold the above two charts. As of June/July 2020, we see the state of COVID-19 recovery for some first-world economies. France, Spain, and Italy, three countries that were hard-hit by the pandemic at first, have all virtually eliminated their exposure. The USA is just skyrocketing out of control. Meanwhile, US unemployment is, for lack of a better word, just stupid right now. Clearly, the US isn't going to have its thing together for quite some time.
But as an online freelancer, you have the whole world as your market. Clients in Australia, Canada, and the UK want to sell to the US just as much as clients in the US do. For that matter, it's not much trouble to write for those markets from the US as well. Or you can work for US clients who likewise benefit from a global market. This was how I weathered the 2007 Subprime Mortgage Recession. I simply picked up international clients and prospered while the rest of the US struggled. Not only that, but the recession kept prices down for me while my income was unaffected. The same thing has happened during COVID-19; I got paid a stimulus check that I didn't even need.
#4: Never stop hunting!
This is my number one survival rule at all times, in fat times and thin times: "Too many clients" is just barely enough. My standard operating procedure is to keep two major accounts going, each of which are steady pay that can sustain me on their own, plus two to four small accounts for coffee money, exposure, good karma, whatever. Never allow yourself to be complacent with just one major client. If that account drops, you are scrambling to replace it while you watch your balance dwindle.
Even when I'm booked solid, I keep a channel open for offers. If I am too busy to take on a new client, I leave the door open to later opportunities. If a client bounces, I still offer to keep them in mind for future work. I do not bother with one-shot projects unless they have an incredible perk. I look for steady, month-in month-out income, so I never have to worry. It takes a *LONG* time to find stable clients, but they are worth hunting for. For each stable client I have, it takes about three months of legwork to secure them. Now count six, seven clients, that's almost two years' hunting. If I lose one, I count on three months to replace them… while I ride comfortably on my other accounts.
#5: Ban the word "niche" from you vocabulary.
The myth that freelance writers have to have a "niche" specialty that they write in exclusively is a poisonous thought. If you stick to a "niche," you will be one starving writer. In my 20+ years of experience, my "niche" is whatever I'm hired to do. When cryptocurrency is big, my "niche" is cryptocurrency. When cannabis is big, my "niche" is cannabis. If ASMR videos about Zen sand gardens take off, expect to see me writing about ASMR videos about Zen sand gardens.
I have no patience for people who refuse to learn. The Internet is at your disposal for free; you have no excuse to not become an expert in any topic in your free time. If you refuse to learn, just for the joy of challenging yourself even notwithstanding the economic benefit, you are in the wrong business.
COVID-19 Economic Impact: Big Picture
You may all hiss and boo if you like, but back in my pre-freelance life I used to work at the headquarters of a major multinational bank, a name which you have no doubt heard. While there, I dug into some economics courses and studied the markets with a rare glimpse from the inside. From this, I learned the following.
A major law of economics is that markets thrive on stability. The economy does very well when everybody can start business Monday morning expecting the week to go pretty much like it was last week. A stable economy can predict the lifts and falls of the market in boom and bust cycles, as long as nothing major impacts it from outside. Even a downturn isn't bad news, as long as it's a predictable downturn where you can take defensive measures.
COVID-19 is like Godzilla for markets. It is a force of CHAOS! Nobody could have predicted we would be here a year, even six months ago. Right now, we're in a limbo of uncertainty. What if we get a vaccine, cure the virus, and triumphantly return to business as usual by Christmas? Then we lose money if we bet too short. What if the crisis drags on for ten more years? Then we lose money if we bet long.
If you came into this six months ago, could you have predicted:
- The Muslim hajj being canceled - This isn't just a disruption of spiritual practices; the travel and tourism industry thrives off the hajj every year.
- The worldwide George Floyd / Civil Rights riots - These are partly being blamed on COVID-19 conditions; lockdown and quarantine together with a downturned economy and massive unemployment made the US a powder keg ready to blow over anything, let alone an explosive Civil Rights crisis.
- The long-term hit to the education industry - Schools have closed and remained closed, while education becomes a remote-learning option only. Those students will never get these years back.
- A Partisan political split over COVID-19 - Were you hoping the US would band together in solidarity to weather this crisis? Apparently not.
- The dying sports market - As many of us Liberals have been pointing out for years, the sports industry is about nothing but money. Too much of our infrastructure is based on this idea that sports spending would never end. Well it's ended now, but it will continue in denial for a while yet.
- The dip in birth rates - We were already seeing a declining birth rate from previous factors. Nobody wants to bring a child into this situation right now, so the birth rates may approach the negative population in a few years.
The economy is an intertwined, interwoven network of dominoes that all tip each other over. A normal crisis like a war or a hurricane sets off a few local ripples. COVID-19 has stomped the entire table, and we have chains of chain-reactions that will still be ticking along for years yet.
As Harvard Business Review points out, there is no playbook for this scenario. The last time a global pandemic impacted the human race to this scale, it was an entirely different world, one without a large portion of our telecommunications infrastructure which we now enjoy.
But remember my rule #1 back there: Money always goes SOMEWHERE! Reduced spending on some fronts has left many of us with money we can't spend looking for somewhere else for it to go. It is not enough to say that there's an economic downturn; the economy is being restructured, with lopsided growth in some areas to compensate for the losses in others.
The take-away from this section is that each one of us will succeed or fail in the coming years based on our flexibility. If enough people adapt to the new economy, we'll do well. If most people just go out of business and sit there refusing to try to do anything to better their chances, the economy will suffer.
COVID-19 Economic Impact: Small Picture
So back to our little freelance writing corner of the world: We have two questions:
- Which sectors are having a bad market?
- Which sectors are having a good market?
The bad markets are mostly obvious.
We've even touched on a few already:
- Travel and tourism - POISON! Obviously, nobody is traveling. On the other hand, if you previously wrote in the travel and tourism niche and you didn't save up your vast wealth for this crisis, it's your own damn fault.
- Communal entertainment - Casinos, theme parks, theaters, concerts, festivals, conventions, nightclubs, live shows, parades, beaches, everything with a large crowd. This is an especial shock because retail was fading into the "experience economy" already. The escape room industry was just getting started.
- Fashion and clothing - It stands to reason that if you're not planning a night out at the discotheque, you don't need that flashy addition to your wardrobe. People staying at home barely use clothes. A pair of sweatpants and a Tshirt will do.
- Gasoline / petrol - Less travel = burning less gas.
- Education industry - Keep in mind that people still want to learn anyway (hello, here you are reading this!) It's just that we'll have to get used to doing it some other way besides grouped together in a classroom.
- Restaurants and bars - Restaurants still do delivery and curbside because, duh, people still have to eat. Some restaurants have reopened only to close again because customers are being idiots. As for bars, people would just as soon drink at home and avoid the DUI anyway.
- Gyms - Ah ah ah, can't congregate in one place with a bunch of strangers panting and sweating on you!
That's enough for the losers in this economy. Bear in mind that secondary industries are impacted as well. I touched on a couple of obvious ones, clothing and gas, taking a hit because people are traveling less, but there's much more besides. Again, flexibility and creativity in adapting to new circumstances is the most important survival trait to have right now.
Now for the boom markets…
It's really easy to see where certain markets are not only persevering, but thriving. Just think of a couch potato. The shut-in lifestyle has never been hipper! Nerds rule jocks drool. Anything and we mean anything, that's best done in the privacy of your own domicile is having a banner year right now.
Obviously, your ticket in freelance writing is to support any of the following industries:
- Groceries and kitchenware - People are cooking at home in droves!
- Home office - Everybody who can work from home is doing so.
- Delivery - Food delivery is obviously big, but last-mile delivery of anything you can order online is doing stupidly good too.
- Kids' toys and activities - Home-schooling parents ended a year looking at a summer without summer camp too.
- Solo exercise - In place of the suffering gym industry, hiking, biking, jogging, and home exercise equipment have all taken off.
- Alcohol and cannabis - Predictably, the stressful situation combined with being cooped up at home means people are spending their free time getting positively stewed stupid.
- Home media - By God if there was ever a crisis that calls for binge-watching all the TV series you missed, it's a global pandemic. The film industry is turning from theaters to VOD.
- Video games - It should go without saying, but the video game market, already the biggest entertainment sector, has ballooned even more now.
- Yard, garden, and patio - It's one of the only ways people can justify going outside. You can't go out to party, but at least you can toast with a socially distanced cocktail from your porch to the neighbor's deck.
- Pet supplies - Staying at home means more time to dote on your furry friends.
- Sex toys - We said "anything" you can do from home!
- ECommerce in general - The Internet itself is experiencing 30% increased usage since COVID-19 hit.
Along with all of the above, as with the market losers, the market winners have some secondary industries which will also benefit. For instance, economists expected the cosmetics industry to dip, but in fact it has puttered along. This makes sense when you consider all the office workers now working from home - you still want your face to look good when you teleconference with the boss, even if you're not wearing pants.
In some cases, the unexpected boom in some markets has led to inflation. In the US, food prices at the grocery store have surged. Once again, money goes somewhere: People who do have money to spend, have fewer choices on where to spend it. They can't have a vacation or a trip to Disneyland, so they spend it on high-end groceries instead.
Conclusion: We're Building a New World!
More than a few of you out there have expressed a paradoxical feeling of favor towards the post-pandemic world. Especially if you were already on the geeky side (hello) and weren't that enthusiastic a participant in society in the first place (oh, that's me too). What is this new world we're shaping? Obviously, we've seen from the protests and increased activism that people already experiencing an upheaval on one front don't mind asking for a restructuring on another.
Maybe you're just doing this freelance writing bit for the money. That's fine, but let's not forget what a huge chunk of the media we all own right now. Social change is born on our collective keyboards. The thoughts we write today enters the minds of tomorrow. We have more power than we think we do, and yet we are dispersed in such a way that we can't abuse it collectively. That's actually one of the best places to be in this point in history, and when it comes time to write that chapter, we'll be in a position to do that too.
This is the best time ever to be a writer.