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Even freelancers need co-workers

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Starbucks (Chicago Tribune file photo )
January 19, 2012|By Ryan Smith, For RedEye

Paul McCartney once asked in the classic Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby" where all the lonely people came from. Well, rock star—here's your answer: They're freelancers.

Buzzwords such as "freedom" and "flexibility" often are used to glowingly describe the emerging "freelance economy" made up of journalists, photographers, consultants, graphic designers and others, but what gets lost in the hype of this trend is the abject isolation of working from home. It ain't easy to replace the social benefits of office life.

There are a lot of us lonely people these days. According to a 2005 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 10 million workers in the U.S. were classified as independent contractors—about 7.4 percent of the workforce—and that number was expected to rise through 2018. (The bureau hasn't counted independent workers since that study, but you only have to look to the nearest Starbucks to see how fast our numbers are growing.)

Faced with another year of striking up conversations with the inanimate objects lying around my apartment, I decided to make it my New Year's resolution to do something about it: I created the Chicago Freelancers Guild of Booze, a goofily named group designed for myself and my fellow social invalids to have a few beers and chit-chat.

Not that I'm bashing the freelance lifestyle. I admit, spending the work day clad only in my boxer-briefs or microplush bathrobe is a nice perk. (Take that, business-casual!) But we freelancers also don't get invitations to after-work happy hours or booze-soaked Christmas parties. Nobody brings devil's food cake to our desks on our birthdays.

Instead, the freelancer's water cooler surrogate is Facebook and Twitter—which is a poor substitute when it means more time spent peering slack-jawed into our laptops and smartphones.

There was a headline in The Onion a couple of years ago that summed up the freelance life rather poignantly: "Report: 90% of Waking Hours Spent Staring at Glowing Rectangles."

While I doubt the amount of time I spend with my devices is that extreme, there's no question I'm looking at pictures of people's faces on the Internet far more than I see real humans in the flesh.

Some people advise me to go to coffee shops to work, but sitting among the masses of Laptop Nation is a depressing prospect to me. When everyone—including you—is silently engrossed in his own glowing rectangle, it feels a little too much like we're trapped in the Matrix together. Repeating the words "large vanilla latte" to the barista every couple of hours doesn't count as quality social interaction, either.

That's why I started my guild, which met earlier this month for the first time. Sure, our first meetup was a little awkward at first—especially because most of us are used to making jokes that include hashtags and "like" buttons. The five of us piling into a photo booth, clown car-style, didn't quite work out, either.

But I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that it was a cathartic experience having a workday that meant lots of laughs and a forum in which we could complain about the pain of invoicing or the outrageous cost of health insurance.

Just because you are your own boss doesn't mean you can't have your own version of co-workers. There are freelancers all around us, especially in a city like Chicago. Just reach out and connect.

RYAN SMITH IS A REDEYE SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR.

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