Freelance is having a moment. There are 55 million independent workers in the U.S. alone, and that number is expected to increase to 50 percent of the total workforce by 2020. The gig economy is getting bigger, but it’s also changing.
To explore these changes, AND CO, the support system for freelancers, recently fielded a comprehensive study among hundreds of independent workers from all over the world. The freelancers interviewed reflected a range of professions (creatives, strategists, engineers and everything in between) and experience. What they had in common was an underlying desire to take control of their own career paths.
In the meantime, we’ve pulled out some of the most surprising findings to come from the research.
- Most freelancers we surveyed are new to the game.
Two-thirds of the respondents told us they’ve been freelancing for three years or less. This would indicate a general momentum from traditional career paths to independent work over the past few years. The rise of companies like WeWork, Fiverr and Upwork are further evidence of this trend. Not only are there more freelancers, but there are also more freelance resources than ever before.
- Freelancers aren’t unanimous on what to call themselves.
One of the more interesting trends that the gig economy has brought about is a concerted push-back against the “freelance stigma,” which assumes people who don’t have traditional jobs are aimless or simply can’t hack it in a corporate role. More than 60 percent of respondents felt that the freelance stigma existed, and many of them cited this as a reason for why clients stiff them. Nearly half of our respondents said they had been stiffed by a client by the way—not cool!
Also of note is that freelancers are describing themselves in different ways. While “freelance” was most common in our report, the terms “self-employed,” “side-hustler” and “founder” were close behind.
- Freelancers are multi-faceted.
We named our study “The Slash Workers,” because 95 percent of our respondents told us they actively sell two or more traits within their freelance career. In fact, a third of respondents said they sell three or more talents to sustain themselves.
The choice to sell multiple talents likely has financial and personal reasons attached to it. From a financial standpoint, diversifying one’s skillset is a great way to open yourself up to a larger pool of opportunities. Separately, the No. 1 reason the freelancers we interviewed went independent was for “personal growth.” And what better way to develop yourself as a professional than by exposing yourself to multiple clients and crafts?
- The gender gap exists in freelance, too.
One of the more disappointing, and unfortunately not surprising, findings in our study was that the pay gap exists in the world of freelance, too. Women were more likely to fall into our lowest income bracket than men, and men were 4.5X more likely to earn $150,000/year or more than women. This could be due to a variety of factors, including the calculation of freelance rates based on prior full-time roles.
- Freelancers say life’s better since going independent.
Most freelancers we surveyed said they do not feel more financially stable since going independent; however, 68 percent of them say their quality of life has improved. Why? Because independent workers seem to favor freedom and flexibility above income. What’s even more interesting is that digital nomads were even more likely to report a higher quality of life (77 percent say life has gotten better since they went independent).
- Digital nomadism is an appealing lifestyle for many freelancers.
Of the freelancers we surveyed, 25 percent of them told us they are currently living and working as digital nomads in cities around the world. In total, 60 percent of respondents told us they would be open to exploring this type of lifestyle in the future. What’s holding up more freelancers from making the move? Beyond the logistics required to make such a change, 50 percent of our respondents also told us that they wished more companies would offer remote work opportunities.
- Personal branding matters.
As freelancers begin to position themselves as solopreneurs (and not just part-time workers), they are realizing the benefits of personal branding and marketing. More than 40 percent of respondents told us that personal branding is a critical function within their overall working responsibilities. The chart below shows some of the ways freelancers are finding and securing new projects.
- No, freelancers do not “celebrate working themselves to death.”
A recent New Yorker piece criticized the gig economy for celebrating long hours and overwork. While it’s true that the sum total of a solopreneur’s responsibilities can often amount to more than the typical 40-hour work week, freelancers do in fact care about work/life balance. In fact, when asked what their top career objectives were, they cited flexibility and work/life balance more often than anything else.
- Most freelancers see globalization as an opportunity.
As global borders dissolve and give way to more fluid work/travel lifestyles, it’s also becoming easier than ever to find work outside of one’s one market. The freelancers we surveyed, overall, see globalization as an opportunity for them, and not a risk to their future businesses.
- Many freelancers want to be independent forever.
Counter to the stereotype that people go independent when they have no other options (e.g. following a layoff), 41 percent of freelancers we surveyed say they want to do so “forever.” Moreover, only 6 percent told us they made the move to freelance to chase after a perceived financial upside.
So, what’s next for the freelance workforce? Respondents told us they are looking forward to more infrastructure and solutions for managing their business. They also cited a lack of community as one drawback to independent work, though organizations like the Freelancers Union are working hard on that aim.
View and share the full report here.