No boss, no office, no problem! The rise of the freelance workforce

BY Simone Pathe  September 4, 2014 at 6:22 PM EST
Fifty-three million Americans are freelancers, according to a survey released Thursday. Photo by Flickr user markus spiske

Fifty-three million Americans are freelancers, according to a survey released Thursday. Photo by Flickr user markus spiske

Thirty-four percent of the American workforce freelances, according to a survey commissioned by the Freelancers Union and “online workplace” site Elance-oDesk, which was released Thursday. That’s 53 million Americans. A decade ago, the General Accountability Office found 42.6 million “contingent workers.”

The Freelancers Union, of course, has an interest in demonstrating that their ranks are growing, but some of the finer-print statistics in the survey conducted by independent research firm Edelman Berland provides more insight into who’s freelancing and why.

Earnings, for example, may provide a window into why some people freelance. Nearly eight in 10 freelancers (77 percent) make the same or more than they did before freelancing. In fact, the desire to “earn extra money” was the most common answer to why Americans wanted to freelance.

That’s not to say the money is easy coming. About half of part-timers and freelancers complain about lack of stable income and the difficulty of finding work, although the Internet and social media are changing the search process.

Freelancing, though, is a generic term for a variety of different employment terms. The biggest group of freelancers (40 percent) are independent contractors, who work without employers on a project-to-project basis.

But for many freelancers, their unsupervised project-to-project work is on the side — in addition to a regular job. These moonlighters make up 27 percent of the independent workforce. The Pew Research Center suggested Thursday that despite all you’ve been hearing about part-timers, moonlighters are actually fewer than they were in the 1990s. The August jobs report shows that 5 percent of the employed hold more than one job, which Pew reports have generally been more likely to have been millennials, more educated people and women.

Work schedules get more complicated for the nearly 20 percent of the independent workforce the survey calls “diversified workers.” They balance out their week between hours with a regular employer, a part-time side gig and freelancing. Temps — freelancers working on one contract — are only 10 percent. The smallest group, though, are the 5 percent who call themselves freelance business owners. These people identify as freelancers even though they may be someone else’s boss.

It’s no surprise that millennials are slightly more likely to freelance than older workers. For some of them, it’s the only career they’ve ever known. Their freelance work also seems to be more purposeful, with 62 percent of them (compared to 54 percent of freelancers over 35) saying that they’re likely to look for work that has a positive world impact.