By: Dr. Adam Ozimek
The past two years have ushered in monumental change for the labor market, but a constant remains: freelancing. We’ve seen evidence of this over the past year, with a surge in new business registrations and self-employment reaching its highest point in over a decade. Upwork’s 2021 Freelance Forward survey confirms the finding. In fact, excluding temporary workers, freelancing increased to the highest share of the labor force in the eight years that we have been surveying.
Overall, the percent freelancing in 2021 remained constant at 36% of the U.S. workforce, but the past year ushered in a shift in the type of freelance work being done. This year, we found that there was a drop in temporary workers, but an increase in skilled freelancing. That freelancing overall has not grown is due to a decline among temp work and less freelancing among the least educated. Skilled freelancing, in contrast, continues to grow, and as a result those with the most education are freelancing more than ever.
But what is driving the growth of this specific type of freelancing that we see in both this survey and other data sources? Why do people freelance, and how is it working for them? This report explains the unique value that freelancing provides and why it is so important, particularly for remote skilled freelancers.
Key Findings Include:
- Amid a turbulent year, freelancing remains an important part of the U.S labor market and economy: Freelancers contributed $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy in annual earnings, up $100 million from 2020
- The share of non-temporary freelancers grew to a new high: The share of workers who are non-temporary freelancers rose from 33.8% to 35.0% from 2020 to 2021.
- Freelancing is growing among the most educated, shrinking among the least educated: The higher skilled nature of freelancing is clear in 51% of post-grad workers doing freelancing, up 6% since 2020, while the share of high school graduates or less freelancing has declined from 37% in 2020 to 31% this year.
- Amid The Great Resignation, more professionals are considering freelance work in the future: 56% of non-freelancers say they are likely to freelance in the future
- The number of freelancers who earn more than in their traditional jobs continues to grow: 44% of freelancers say they earn more freelancing than with a traditional job in 2021, this is up from 39% in 2020 and 32% in 2019
- The future of freelance is bright: 9 in 10 freelancers believe that the “best days are ahead” for freelancing; Two-thirds (67%) say they are optimistic about their career in 2022, compared to 58% non-freelancers
What is a Temporary Worker?
Before looking at areas of growth, it is important to differentiate freelancing from temporary freelancing. Freelance Forward suggests that 2 million more people started non-temp freelancing in 2021, which is consistent with a variety of other data sources showing a booming year for self-employment, entrepreneurship, and freelancing. For example, BLS measures of self-employment are up 7% compared to before the pandemic, while business payrolls are down 3% still. According to the Census Bureau, non-wage business registrations are still 50% higher than pre-pandemic levels even in October 2021. Freelance Forward is consistent with these results: if you look past temporary workers, independent freelancing overall is increasing. But what exactly is a temporary worker?
A temporary worker is an individual who has an employer, but does work on a temporary basis. What they share with freelancers, and why they are historically included in our survey, is the temporary nature of individual work engagements. However, temporary workers differ significantly from other freelancers because temporary workers generally lack the independence and flexibility that exists in freelancing. Temporary workers not only have an employer, but are generally also seeking out a more traditional work arrangement. As a result, temporary workers are far more likely to report they would be making more money at a traditional employer, while non-temp freelancers are more likely to report they are making more than they would for a traditional employer.
While still an important corner of the overall labor market, temporary workers do not generally reflect people choosing a way of working that brings more flexibility and independence. Temporary workers are also most at odds with the trends we are seeing across all other types of freelancing, in particular the growth of skilled, remote freelancers. As a result, this report largely focuses on all other areas of freelancing and not temporary work.
Growth of the Highly Skilled, Educated Freelancer
When looking at the freelance workforce in 2021, freelancing remains incredibly diverse in the types of the work being done. There is a range of services, which includes everything from selling goods to food delivery, but this year’s data suggests that freelancers are increasingly doing skilled work. There is a shift away from ‘gig work,’ and instead, we’re seeing growth in the number of professionals who offer skilled services and have higher levels of education.
Let’s start with looking at changes in skilled services. In 2019, 45% of freelancers reported doing some skilled services as part of their freelancing. This means that freelancers are doing work in fields like computer programming, writing, design, IT, marketing, business consulting, etc. In 2021, however, we see that the percentage of freelancing providing skilled services is up to 53%, an 8 percentage point increase in the past two years.
Some of this increase reflects a growth in freelancers doing multiple types of work. For example, unskilled services and goods selling have grown more common as well. However, the increasing trend towards skilled freelancing is also clear in the education mix: those with advanced degrees do the most freelancing, and the share of them freelancing has increased significantly since 2019. The higher skilled nature of freelancing is clear in 51% of post-grad workers who are freelancing. Indeed, compared to the previous year the share of high school graduates or less freelancing has declined from 37% to 31%. In other words, freelancing has grown among the most educated while declining among the lowest, which suggests there is a growing skill-bias of freelancing.
The high skill level of freelancing is also apparent in the occupations that have the highest share of freelancers. Arts and design, marketing, and computers/mathematical occupations have the highest share freelancing. These are skilled, professional services jobs. Contrary to public perception that freelancing means just lower skilled ‘gig work,’ we see that the share of freelancing in art and design is almost double that of transportation.
What is Driving the Increase in Skilled Freelancing?
The notion of The Great Resignation is a topic that has been trending in the media for several months. More people are quitting their jobs in search of something else, but why? One hypothesis is that the pandemic offered many professionals a different perspective on their careers. For some, the old constraints of being in the office with rigid schedules and long commutes no longer felt necessary, and as a result, professionals are making changes that prioritize things they value more. For some professionals, this means control. Control over where they work, when they work, and for whom they work.
Freelancing offers professionals a chance to be in control of their careers in a way that cannot be matched by traditional employment. This is likely a reason why more skilled professionals are flocking to freelancing in 2021. The ability to work remotely, have flexibility, and control earning potential are just a few of the key benefits of freelancing.
Ability to Work Remotely
Let’s start with control over where one works. Freelancing is and has been more remote than traditional employment. While 36% of the workforce overall does freelancing, 47% of those working remotely freelance. In addition, 31% of freelancers report they are working entirely remotely compared to 21% of non-freelancers.
Part of this is attributable to the occupation mix, with freelancing being concentrated among work that can be done easily remotely. For example, art & design, marketing, and mathematics/computers are the most freelanced occupations, and also are the largest categories of work on Upwork. Another reason that freelancing is disproportionately remote is that when you have more than one client, and the average freelancer has six, it’s even more useful to be able to reach out of your local labor market. On Upwork, freelancers can connect with clients all over the world, improving their ability to specialize and find good matches.
Regardless of why it’s more remote, it’s important to note that freelancing gives professionals the ability to choose where they work from. If freelancers only want to work remotely, they have the option to do so based on the clients they choose to work with and the projects they choose to accept. Conversely, many non-freelancers are subject to whether or not an employer will allow them to stay remote. This type of guarantee is likely an appeal to professionals who value the ability to work remotely and may be a reason for the increase in skilled, remote freelancers.
Aside from the ability to work remotely, another important reason that people choose to freelance is due to the flexibility that it provides. Freelancers overwhelmingly show the flexibility that freelancing provides is important given their lifestyles and needs.
When looking at the data, we see that 74% of freelancers say that freelancing gives them flexibility to be more available as a caregiver for their family, and 67% says it gives them flexibility to address personal mental or physical health needs. For remote skilled freelancers, this rises to 81% and 74% respectively.
Although flexibility is a broad concept, we see that people specifically like the flexibility to select where they work and when they work.
The need for flexibility should not be underestimated, with 55% of freelancers and 59% of skilled remote freelancers indicating that because of personal circumstances, they would be unable to work for a traditional employer.
For many, caregiving responsibilities and personal health needs drastically changed due to the pandemic. The flexibility that freelancing can provide may be a draw for some and a necessity for others.
Finally, we can look at the effects of freelancing on earnings. When looking at 44% of freelancers say they make more than they would for a traditional employer, 18% say the same, and 38% say less. Given that so many choose freelancing for reasons of flexibility and need, when pay would not necessarily be expected to be more, freelancers being more likely to earn more is a positive result.
Overall Career and Life Satisfaction
The pandemic put so many aspects of life into perspective, including career satisfaction. The increase in freelancing, specifically among highly skilled and educated workers, tells us that many professionals elected to reprioritize some aspects of their professional lives. Instead of being tied to an employer, many elected to be their own bosses. They looked to freelancing to take control of when they work, where they work, and with whom they work. Our survey shows that those who have made the switch to freelancing feel it has paid off.
When asked about taking a traditional job, nearly half of all freelancers say that there is no amount of money that would convince them to take a traditional job. While one need not interpret this result literally, as surely there is some amount for most, to see it as a strong indicator of how satisfied professionals are with freelancing.
Furthermore, our survey contradicts the idea that freelancing is driven entirely by business demands, and that workers would prefer a traditional job. Indeed, when asked directly 63% of freelancers indicate if they had the choice, they prefer freelancing over a traditional job. Given that many freelancers are doing so on the side, this question is also somewhat misleading as moonlighting freelancers may not wish to give up their day jobs. This number rises even higher to 76% if we focus on full-time skilled remote freelancers, who would not have a traditional day job, complicating their answers to this question. This is consistent with BLS evidence that 79% of independent contractors prefer working that way compared to only 9% who would rather have a traditional job.
Finally, we can see that on the whole, freelancers report more satisfaction with their jobs overall, their day to day work tasks, and their work life balance. While it is always possible to find those who are unhappy with their working arrangements, on net freelancers believe themselves to be earning more, have the level of flexibility they require, and overall higher satisfaction with their work.
The study is conducted by independent research firm Edelman Data & Intelligence. 6,000 U.S. working adults over the age of 18 were surveyed for it online between August 27, 2021 – September 29, 2021. Of those, 2,156 were freelancers and 3,844 were non-freelancers. Results were weighted to ensure demographic representation in line with the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey. The study has an overall margin of error of ±1.2% at the 95% level of confidence.
- US Workers Overall: U.S. adults 18+ who have earned income from work within the past 12 months, including both freelancers and non-freelancers.
- Freelancers: Individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work, within the past 12 months (calculated within the US Workers Overall sample).
- Non-freelancers: Individuals who earned income through work but have not engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work, within the past 12 months (calculated within the US Workers Overall sample).
Types of Freelancers
- Skilled freelancers: Individuals that indicate that their current freelance work entails selling skilled services (e.g., computer programming, writing, design, IT, marketing, business consulting, etc.).
- Remote freelancers: Individuals who do 100% of their work remotely or who are hybrid workers, working both in-person at a physical location and remotely.
- Skilled remote freelancers: Freelancers whose work entails selling skilled services and work remotely.
- College-educated remote freelancers: Freelancers who have a college degree (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Professional school, or Doctorate degree) and work remotely.
- Full-time freelancers: Individuals that describe their current freelance work status as “full-time freelancer.’
- Part-time freelancers: Individuals that describe their current freelance work status as “part-time freelancer.”
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