The annual Freelancing in America survey, released this week by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, paints a picture of a freelance workforce that is growing much faster than the US workforce in general. The report estimates the total number of US freelancers today at 57.3 million, or 36 percent of the total American workforce. That number has grown more than three times faster than the overall workforce in the past three years, and if this rate of change holds, freelancers are projected to compose a majority of the US workforce by 2027. Millennials are leading the trend in this direction, with 47 percent of millennial workers saying they freelanced.
The survey of over 6,000 US adults also finds that freelancers are doing better than their traditionally employed peers at preparing themselves for their professional futures: 55 percent of freelancers said they had engaged in some kind of re-skilling activity in the past six months, compared to 30 percent of regular workers. In general, 65 percent of freelancers said they were updating their skills as work evolved, while just 45 percent of others said so.
Freelancers are also feeling the impact of technological change more acutely, with 49 percent saying their work had already been affected by AI and robotics, against just 18 percent of full-time employees. At the same time, technology is also bringing them more work, with 71 percent saying the amount of work they had found online had increased in the past year.
Another interesting finding is that while many people lump freelancers in with the gig economy, freelancers don’t: Only 10 percent of freelancers in the survey said they considered themselves a part of that economy. Indeed, we’ve seen from other research that the gig economy, properly speaking—meaning workers who make a living through platforms like Uber—is just one component of the new trend toward contingent and temporary employment in the US labor market. Fast Company’s Ruth Reader considers why freelancers might be rejecting the “gig economy” label:
It wasn’t that long ago that the word “freelance” itself was something of a dirty word, effectively shorthand for those who couldn’t land full-time jobs. … Part of the reason that freelancers may resist being termed “gig workers” is because the phrase implies less-skilled labor acquired through a platform like Uber or Postmates. Many say that kind of work doesn’t apply to them. Roughly 43% of the freelancers surveyed for the FIA report said they got jobs through their own personal and professional networks.
“‘Gig’ makes it sound like platforms are like telling them what to do and people are not empowered,” [Upwork CEO Stephane] Kasriel says. “Freelancers,” on the other hand, choose their own destiny, he explains, and subsequently tend to be higher earners. About 36% of freelancers are earning more than $75,000 annually, the survey found, up from 21% in 2015. And more of them are choosing to freelance full-time. When the FIA study started in 2014, only 17% of freelancers were full-time, and now that figure is 29%.