Solo freelancers have been given special attention within the federal government’s economic fast-track assistance measures throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The impacts of these measures on how solo freelancers view themselves and how they are viewed by others is being examined by sociologists Dr. Isabell Stamm of TU Berlin and Dr. Lena Schürmann of HU Berlin in their research project entitled “Solidarität mit Solo-Selbstständigen - die Ambivalenzen der Soforthilfe”. The project is funded by the Berlin University Alliance within its special call Pandemic Research of the Grand Challenge Initiatives https://www.berlin-university-alliance.de/commitments/grand-challenge-initiatives/index.html
Your research focuses on solo freelancers, a group which has received particular support as part of the federal government's economic assistance measures during the coronavirus pandemic. What are the specific characteristics of solo freelancers and what makes them suitable as a focus of research?
Isabell Stamm & Lena Schürmann:
Solo freelancers are a group whose income does not derive from employment in a company or organization but which is rather generated within the market. They generally work alone without employees and occupy an area between wage labor and entrepreneurship. The number of solo freelancers has increased considerably in recent years, totaling about 2.2 million in 2018. That is more than half of the total number of freelancers.
The work of solo freelancers highlights typical social problems: These include the risk of casualization, in particular when solo freelancers cannot earn enough through their work to provide for risks that may arise throughout their lives, such as unemployment, illness and old age. One reason for this is that the regulations for including solo freelancers in the social insurance system vary greatly from branch to branch, such as for those working in skilled trades or cultural areas.
Solo freelancers also point to structural changes in the job market, which in recent years have necessitated an ever higher level of flexibility. This means that only a part of this group work freelance in order to be able to determine how they work. Many work under freelance conditions in order to be able to respond to the challenges of the job market and in some cases as a way to avoid unemployment.
The coronavirus pandemic and the associated lockdowns and restrictions affect the ability of many workers, freelancers and businesses to pursue their work, at times with serious economic consequences. The federal government has responded to this with a set of measures to counter the effects. Solo freelancers are explicitly identified within these measures as a social group requiring assistance. This is remarkable given that they otherwise occupy an ambiguous status within the social welfare solidarity system.
Fast-track assistance is not only available for employees and businesses, it is also offered to solo freelancers, a highly heterogeneous group previously confronted with ambiguous regulations and structures. Fast-track assistance identifies solo freelancers per se as a group requiring particular protection.
At the same time, the launch of the fast-track assistance program and in particular its take-up involve a number of ambivalences. A number of questions need to be answered: Are solo freelancers entitled to assistance as sole wage earners? Or should solo freelancers, as entrepreneurial persons, make provisions for such risks themselves? Does taking up social welfare in the form of fast-track assistance involve social exclusion?
It is precisely these questions which we address in our research project. We are examining the ambivalences of fast-track assistance from the perspective of solo freelancers as well as that of society.
Your aim is to research the level of social acceptance for fast-track assistance measures and what this reveals about solidarity. What approach do you adopt in your study?
Isabell Stamm & Lena Schürmann:
We focus in our study on the ambivalences of fast-track assistance measures. What we are looking to do is examine the complex and in part contradictory nature of how these measures are perceived. To do so, we need to take account of different nuances and undertones. This is why we opted for a qualitative approach allowing us to be as open as possible in how we record the experiences and opinions of solo freelancers and representatives from media and politics as well as how we reflect the complexity of their responses in our analysis.
We are currently conducting problem-centered interviews with solo freelancers as well as representatives from media and politics. We provide interviewees plenty of scope to talk about their experiences and give their opinions. The interviews are then transcribed and serve, in anonymized form, as the basis for our analysis. We conduct several analyses of the material and identify the different themes relating to fast-track assistance, assign these to different categories and determine how these categories relate to one another. In keeping with grounded theory, we proceed on a case-by-case basis, while recognizing the importance of continuously comparing cases. During the course of our analysis, we are able to identify ambivalences concerning fast-track assistance and to formulate empirically based hypotheses regarding which aspects tend to promote or hinder social acceptance for these measures. Our findings are therefore not only of scientific value, they will also make it possible to conduct faster, more effective and socially acceptable assessments regarding the selection and consequences of measures during future crises.
What stage is your research currently at? Are you already in a position to comment on the acceptance for measures and solidarity within society?
Isabell Stamm & Lena Schürmann:
We started work on our project on 1 July, so our research process is still pretty much in its infancy, but we are making fast progress. So far, we have conducted two dozen interviews and are actively recruiting more interview partners. We are particularly still looking for solo freelancers in Berlin and Bavaria working in knowledge-based services, particularly consultation and coaching, as well in skilled trades and construction. We would also like to interview persons with care duties.
It is still too early, though, to make any well-founded pronouncements concerning solidarity with solo freelancers and ambivalences regarding fast-track assistance. Our aim is to complete the first round of interviews at the end of August and then conduct a second round of interviews in the fall. This second round is intended to reflect changes in attitudes and opinions. We will be presenting first insights into our research at an (online) conference regarding the situation for solo freelancers during the coronavirus pandemic scheduled for early December and jointly organized with the Haus der Selbstständigen in Leipzig.