Freelance Forward 2023

Freelance Forward 2023

Work looks significantly different than it did just a decade ago. A lot has changed with fluctuating economic conditions, a global pandemic, and revolutionary new technology. One constant, however, is in the vital role that freelancing plays in the U.S. workforce. Our latest Freelance Forward survey, the 10th annual study on the U.S. freelance workforce, sheds light on the ongoing and growing significance of freelancing in relation to the way we work now and its impact on our national economy. 

The Upwork Research Institute's 2023 Freelance Forward survey, a representative study of 3,000 professionals, reveals that a staggering 38% of the U.S. workforce, or 64 million Americans, performed freelance work in the past year, an increase of four million total professionals from the previous year.1 The study also found that American freelancers contributed approximately $1.27 trillion in annual earnings to the U.S. economy. 

Freelancing's growing impact on the workforce is due mainly to professionals seeking alternatives to traditional 9-to-5 models in favor of more flexible arrangements. The data reveals that professionals turn to freelancing for greater flexibility, autonomy, and control of their careers.

Key findings include:

  • Freelancing continues to be a significant part of the U.S. labor market and economy: Freelancers contributed $1.27 trillion to the U.S. economy in annual earnings in 2023.
  • Freelancing remains strong among professionals: The share of professionals freelancing increased to nearly 64 million Americans, making up 38% of the U.S. workforce.
  • Freelancers are 2.2 times more likely to regularly use generative AI frequently in their work: 20% of freelancers use generative AI tools on a regular basis (multiple times per week), which compares to just 9% of non-freelance professionals.
  • Nearly half of freelancers provide knowledge services: 47% of all freelancers, or around 30 million professionals, provided knowledge services such as computer programming, marketing, IT, and business consulting in 2023.
  • A quarter of freelancers are creating influencer-style content: 23% of all freelancers, or 14.7 million professionals create influencer content like livestream services, social media videos or images, or blogs in 2023.    
  • Gen Z and Millennials are the most likely to explore freelancing: In 2023, 52% of all Gen Z professionals and 44% of all Millennial professionals performed freelance work.
  • The future is bright, according to freelancers: Over 85% of freelancers say the best days are ahead for freelancing.

The Freelance Workforce

In 2023, 38% of the U.S. workforce, or 64 million Americans, performed freelance work, an increase from 60 million professionals in 2022. This increase also contributed to a more significant economic impact. This year, freelancers contributed $1.27 trillion to the U.S. economy in annual earnings. When we began this seminal annual study, in 2014, 53 million Americans were freelancing. On average, every year over the past decade, an additional 1 million people in the U.S. decided to join the freelance workforce. That same year in 2014, freelancers contributed an estimated $715 billion to the economy. That equates to a 78% increase in just a decade.2

So, who are the key groups freelancing? Looking at the generational breakdowns of the freelance workforce, we find that of all freelancers, 15% are Gen Z, 45% are Millennials, 27% are Gen X, 9% are Boomers, and 4% are the Silent Generation. 

In relation to the workforce overall, Gen Zers and Millennials are mostly likely to be freelancing as a proportion of their cohorts: More than half (52%) of all Gen Zers performed freelance work in 2023, as did 44% of Millennials. This compares to 30% of Gen X professionals, 26% of Boomer professionals, and 38% of Silent Generation professionals.

Skilled and On the Cutting Edge

Freelancers' work ranges widely, but the majority of the work freelancers are performing today is skilled work. Nearly half (47%) of all freelancers provide knowledge, or skilled, services such as computer programming, marketing, IT, and business consulting. Another 23% of all freelancers create influencer content like livestreams, social media videos or images, or blogs. 

Freelancers are also at the forefront of embracing new technologies. When asked about generative AI use in the past three months, freelancers were 2.2 times more than non-freelancers to say they frequently use generative AI tools. In total, 20%, around 12.8 million freelancers, use generative AI tools regularly (multiple times per week), compared to just 9% of non-freelance professionals.

When asked what functions freelancers use generative AI tools for, research (46%), brainstorming and ideation (35%), translation (33%), writing proposals (32%), and coding (28%) ranked at the top. 

The Appeal of Freelancing

As our last decade of research shows, people freelance for various reasons, but flexibility and control remain key motivators. Beyond earning a living, when asked about reasons for freelancing, "to have flexibility in my schedule," "to be in control of my own financial future," and "to work from the location of my choosing" top the list. This is mainly because, unlike traditional 9-to-5 employee arrangements, freelancers are their own bosses. They determine when, where, and for whom they engage in work, enabling them to control their schedules and lives.

We see this mainly in where freelancers work from. Although return-to-office mandates have brought many professionals back to an office, freelancers still benefit from working from where they choose. In fact, 60% of freelancers work remotely, which compares to just 32% of non-freelance professionals who work remotely. Similarly, freelancers also dictate the hours and amount they work at a given time. While 77% of freelancers say they work consistently, they do so based on a schedule that best suits their lifestyles.

The Future of Freelancing

Freelancing continues to grow as a viable career choice for professionals, and the future of freelancing remains bright. To understand the future of freelancing, we asked professionals about their optimism ahead of 2024. Freelancers are overwhelmingly optimistic about personal career growth (80%), personal income and salary increases (76%), future job opportunities (74%), and personal development (84%). And when asked about the future, 85% of freelancers say the best days for freelancing are ahead.

Methodology:

The study is conducted by independent research firm Edelman Data & Intelligence. 3,000 U.S. working adults over the age of 18 were surveyed online between October 24, 2023 and November 9, 2023. Of those, 1,142 were freelancers and 1,858 were non-freelancers. Results were collected to ensure demographic representation in line with the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2023 Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey. The study has an overall margin of error of ±1.7% at the 95% level of confidence. Freelancers: ±2.8%, Non-freelancers: ±2.2%.

Footnotes:

1Based on Total US Civilian Labor Force October 2023 of 168 million

2Percent increase does not account for inflation

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