Freelancing Meets Gen Z Modern Work Needs

May 14, 2024
Freelancing Meets Gen Z Modern Work Needs

Upwork study shows Gen Z’s growing presence in freelancing, career expectations, and drive to acquire emerging AI skills

Of all the disruption organizations face today–from finding the best talent to embracing AI–Gen Z’s entrepreneurial eye is redefining the traditional 9-to-5 work model like no other.

Gen Z is set to surpass the Baby Boomer generation at work this year, and by 2030, will make up 30% of the U.S. workforce. They’re the most racially diverse generation in American history and grew up during landmark events, including 9/11, the 2008 recession, a pandemic, and now, at the precipice of the rise of one of the biggest technology shifts we’ve ever experienced.

Gen Z’s rich and diverse experience comes with new expectations that redefine the traditional workforce. They want stability, equity, and opportunities to learn. Gen Zers seek more control over their career paths, and their response to recent layoffs in the tech sector has shown they will stand up for themselves to get what they want from work. So, what does this mean for business leaders looking to find and attract top talent in today’s dynamic labor market?

Many Gen Z professionals are pursuing careers in freelancing, according to a fall 2023 Upwork survey of 1,070 U.S. Gen Zers.¹ The study found that:

  • 53% of Gen Z freelancers work full-time hours on freelance projects, abandoning traditional 9-to-5 jobs and seeing freelancing as a fulfilling career alternative.
  • Gen Z chooses freelancing because it provides a working environment where they can be themselves.
  • Gen Z freelancers are ambitious in mastering generative AI, owning their own upskilling. They are more likely to be learning generative AI through self-directed education, obtaining a generative AI certificate, and using generative AI frequently in their work.

Whether you’re a business leader mapping out your organization or a hiring manager looking to attract top talent, these generational priorities are ones to deeply consider and ultimately embrace.

The new definition of a freelancer

Freelancers, self-employed workers who do projects for one or more clients, are increasingly becoming the backbone of modern work. Freelancer influence is gaining ground, with projections that the freelance economy will occupy over 50% of the American workforce by 2027. Freelance work isn’t new to Gen Z, who in their formative years experienced 94% of all job growth coming from alternative workforce arrangements in the U.S. As the freelance market continues to grow, organizations need to consider how Gen Z thinks about work and how their approach demystifies what it means to freelance today.

Our research showed more than half (53%) of Gen Z freelancers dedicate the majority of their working hours to freelance projects, abandoning traditional jobs, across a portfolio of different types of work. A third of these Gen Z freelancers who are working 40+ hours per week have been doing so for over two years. They’re also more likely to have a postgraduate degree and work across multiple complex projects, compared to their peers who do not freelance.

Gen Zers are taking advantage of new, distributed ways of working, exhibiting modern entrepreneurship that aligns with their values. They’re creating autonomous work options that compete with the lure of long-term employment incentives, and opting instead for more control over the benefits and safety nets they establish for themselves. This generation is no longer willing to settle for an imbalanced labor market—they’re taking control of their careers. They’re carving out a new way to think about work.

While leaders may associate freelancing with short-term, transactional work, Gen Zers have adopted various operational structures or modes of freelancing, each with unique underlying motivators. We learned that across the board, Gen Zers choose to freelance for financial means and the flexibility it offers. Beyond these core motivators, we found several nuanced reasons for freelancing.

Our research revealed five distinct modes of freelancing or “freelance career types”: Portfolio Careerist, Independent Consultant, Moonlighter, Temporary “Gig” Worker, and Company Founder. Note that Gen Zers may more closely identify with a primary mode of freelancing, while also aligning with a secondary mode. For example, a Portfolio Careerist at times may shift toward Independent Consultant mode if only working with one client.

We found that the largest cohort of Gen Zers identifies as Portfolio Careerists, applying highly specialized skills across various clients, industries, and projects.

Research Infographic 1

All forms of Gen Z freelancers are motivated by financial stability, but the research proved that Gen Zers view work through more than just a financial lens. For example, Portfolio Careerists freelance to pursue more meaning and control in their careers. Independent Consultants pursue their work as a way to obtain greater flexibility. Surprisingly, Temporary Workers' motivation is more about being able to balance caregiving and finding environments where they can be themselves. Lastly, Gen Z Company Founders seek the freedom to be their own boss and control over their financial future.

Suzanne Ctvrtlik, a seasoned freelancer on Upwork and founder of Retrospective Media, has been freelancing full-time for six years and says, “Freelancing has empowered me to become my own boss, control my career, and work on projects that resonate with my skills and values. Freelancing provided a natural transition into entrepreneurship and validated my desire to be a business owner, offering me the opportunity to thrive and succeed on my own terms.”

Across generations, our research shows that younger workers gravitate toward the Portfolio Careerist route: 80% of this freelancing mode are Gen Z or Millennials. While managing a portfolio of work may not be new, it is certainly gaining in popularity, with younger workers seeking to redefine work and careers. Shaping freelance work in this way gives Gen Zers the autonomy to apply their skills where and when they see fit.

We saw a more even spread of Company Founders and Independent Consultants through all generations of workers, with Boomers and Gen X favoring company ownership and Independent Consultant freelance work. This shift in the way younger generations think about freelancing is in part due to the rise of online work marketplaces that enable talent to access and match with client work in a more efficient manner, while also enabling remote work transactions. Prior to the emergence of online work platforms and remote work, it would be difficult to imagine this type of Portfolio Careerist emerging, which is why we see more traditional forms of freelancing such as Company Founder and Independent Consultant favored amongst the older generations of freelancers.  

The survey also showed that Gen Z freelancers are more likely to have a postgraduate degree (7%), than Gen Z full-time employees (4%). This advanced education enables higher-skilled freelancers to take on more complex work like computer programming, machine learning, and creative design. Portfolio Careerists, in particular, are those with the highest education levels and the cohort taking on the most skilled work (see Figure 2).

Research Infographic 2

Intrinsic motivators among freelancers drive higher levels of performance

The research also told us how these new ways of working impact Gen Zers on an individual level. We are all motivated by external factors, such as pay and performance goals, but often overlooked factors are those that are intrinsic, and provide greater fulfillment and meaning to our lives. No matter the type of work one engages in, we all share a need to feel valued for our skills, have autonomy, and to connect with our work and others. Researchers refer to these factors as intrinsic motivators that inspire people to go above and beyond in their work. ²

While the majority of academic literature points to freelancers being motivated by a transactional and extrinsic perspective—namely pay-–our research suggests something quite different.

Company Founders and Portfolio Careerists scored highest when it comes to having their intrinsic motivators met in the workplace—even more so than the general workforce. These workers are most likely to feel they have mastery-level skills, are in control of how they organize their work, and report a strong connection to others with whom they work. This surprising finding could be due to freelancers' ability to selectively collaborate, choosing projects that match their skills and interests. As freelancers often focus on their areas of expertise, they can deepen their mastery more effectively. Additionally, they experience a broader range of interactions, exposing them to diverse working styles and cultures. All of these factors may contribute to a more enriched and fulfilling work experience.

Given that much academic research connects these intrinsic motivators to higher levels of performance, these new ways of working benefit both Gen Zers and the businesses they support. Leaders who incorporate intrinsic motivators into their talent strategy will access the best talent of this generation.

Most Gen Zers are also highly optimistic when it comes to the future of freelancing. Portfolio Careerists, Company Founders, and Moonlighters were most optimistic when it came to their personal development, financial opportunities, and future career growth.

Freelancers generally exhibit higher levels of self-determination compared to the broader workforce. By incorporating freelancers alongside full-time employees, companies can enhance their overall workforce with a group known for their strong drive and self-motivation. This integration may act as a “rising tide that lifts all boats,” boosting organizational morale and productivity.

Research Infographic 3

What this means for leaders: Rethink your organization's makeup

As Gen Z continues to grow into the workforce, pursuing modes of skilled freelancing like Portfolio Careerists and Company Founders, leaders need to think critically about the right mix of full-time employees and freelancers across teams. Freelancing is no longer a transitive phase or a stepping stone to a “real” job—this generation values the financial benefits, flexibility, and control of freelancing, and is building their careers around it.

Those who account for and tap this talent pool will transform the profile of the modern organization and access the best of this generation.

One way to seize this opportunity is to begin the process of job disruption, whereby you break down traditional roles into distinct skills and tasks that will help solve a business problem. From there, you can find the skilled talent you need on work marketplaces like Upwork. To learn more about how to get started, see our research report, Prepare Your Workforce for the Job Disruption Wave of 2024 and Beyond.

Gen Z wants freedom from age, race, and gender expectations

Gen Z is also highly motivated to freelance due to the working environment where they can be themselves. Sixty-four percent of Gen Z freelancers said they freelance because it allows them to work in an environment not restricted by the limitations of age, race, or gender expectations.

Erin L. Thomas, PhD, VP of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Upwork, discusses the cognitive load of code-switching and its impact on both individuals and organizations. She explains, Organizations manage identity by giving employees very little latitude to show up authentically. Employees, especially those from marginalized identity groups, engage in adaptive but personally costly strategies like code-switching to downplay their perceived deviations from the ideal worker.”

Thomas describes how this experience plays out for anyone different from the typical worker in a company in the Belonging Breakdown Journey.

“Managers and organizations benefit from this assimilation because they can maintain the comfort of status quo. But in the end, everyone loses,” Thomas explains.

Just how often do workers assimilate to the organizational “norm?” A recent “Uncovering Culture” study by Deloitte’s DEI Institute and the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU’s School of Law found that 60% of U.S. workers “cover” their identities at work to fit in. The results of covering at work can be detrimental to business growth. In fact, according to research from the Best Places to Work, diverse teams that are enabled to be themselves are much more productive, leading to higher levels of company growth.

Be it age, religion, race/ethnicity, or mental health status, workers feel they’ll be penalized for showing up authentically. The study highlights that leadership diversity and “uncovering” modeling are steps to disrupt the covering culture.

What this means for leaders: Create an inclusive culture

The research is clear: Gen Z seeks a work environment that allows them to be their authentic self that organizations insisting on “status quo employees” lack—and they’re looking to freelancing to get it. When you build an environment where everyone can show up as themselves, freelancers and full-time employees alike are free to bring diversity of thought and experience to their work.

Learn more about creating inclusive cultures for the workforce by reading our Work Innovator research, which found that Work Innovators are 111% more likely to believe their teams have the right skills mix, enabled by people with diverse backgrounds, to effectively meet their goals.

Forever learning (AI)

Gen Zers told us they have an insatiable thirst to learn, and they’re willing to teach themselves the necessary skills to stay competitive. Across all modes of freelancing, 61% of Gen Z freelancers choose freelancing in order to have more control over their personal development and career paths; they’re also more apt to upskill and use new emerging AI tools than their full-time counterparts.

According to Christie Smith, CEO advisor, author and international speaker: “Gen Zers are natural researchers. They ask a collective for answers, aren’t afraid to fail, and take experiential learning to a new level. If they aren’t getting enough development opportunities from corporations, they’ll teach themselves, and arguably, learn more in the process.”

While Gen Z overall may be utilizing new technologies, like generative AI, at faster adoption rates than other generations, Gen Z freelancers are adopting AI at even greater rates. Fifty-one percent of Gen Z professionals overall are adopting generative AI; however, Gen Z freelancers are adopting at even greater rates (61%) compared to their Gen Z full-time employee counterparts (41%). We found three core drivers for this:

1) Self-directed training predicts AI usage

  • 33% of Gen Zers said they have engaged in self-education for AI training, which compares to 31% of Millennials, 18% of Gen X, and 10% of Baby Boomers.
  • Gen Z (39%) is more likely to have already obtained a specific certification for AI training compared to any other generational cohort (see Figure 4).
Research Infographic 4

2) Freelancer mode predicts AI usage

  • 79% of Portfolio Careerists have undergone AI training, and we know that 39% of Gen Z freelancers fall into this category. The demands of proficiency in varied roles perhaps lead this freelancer type to be more open to new technology.
Research Infographic 5
Research Infographic 6

3) Familiarity with work marketplaces predicts AI usage

  • Those who prioritize advancing their careers and know how to get work online via marketplaces seek new technologies to boost their career growth, suggesting that digital environments for work foster AI adoption. Portfolio Careerists are 30% more likely to be extremely familiar with online platforms, compared to all other worker types. And, people who use online platforms to find work are more likely to be very optimistic about their future job opportunities (52%) compared to those who don't use these platforms (33%).

We discovered a beneficial cycle of AI learning among Gen Z freelancers. They learn AI skills, which helps them work and find new projects more efficiently. This success leads to more opportunities with various clients, encouraging them to keep learning. This continuous learning drives their career growth and desire for more work experience, creating a cycle of success and advancement (see Figure 7).

Research Infographic 7

What this means for leaders: Leverage Gen Z freelancers to harness the power of AI for your organization

Gen Z freelancers take control of their hunger to learn by adopting new technologies like AI, training themselves to stay ahead of their peers and other generations. Let this burgeoning workforce integrate AI into your organization’s DNA, increasing adoption rates and efficiencies across the company for greater performance.

Acknowledgments: The Upwork Research Institute team would like to thank Anna Brown, Aziz Ben Jemia, and Christine Kim for their contributions to this research report.

About the survey

The Upwork Research Institute partnered with Edelman DXI to survey 1,070 U.S. Generation Z workers, with 560 Gen Zers reporting freelance work and 510 reporting full-time or part-time employment. The survey was fielded online from October 24, 2023 to November 9, 2023. Correlational statistical analysis was conducted to determine significant differences between Gen Z freelancers and their full-time counterparts. In addition, this dataset was collected as part of Upwork’s broader Freelance Forward 2023 survey efforts, enabling comparisons across all generations of workers.

¹ The Upwork Research Institute partnered with Edelman DXI to survey 1,070 U.S. Generation Z workers, with 560 Gen Zers reporting freelancer work and 510 reporting full-time or part-time employment. The survey was fielded online from October 24, 2023 to November 9, 2023. Correlational statistical analysis was conducted to determine significant differences between Gen Z freelancers and their full-time counterparts. In addition, this dataset was collected as part of Upwork’s broader Freelance Forward 2023 survey efforts, enabling comparisons across all generations of workers.

² To learn more about self-determination theory, visit Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness

Download your copy

We may communicate with you about the information you've requested and other Upwork services. The use of your information is governed by Upwork's Privacy Policy.

Success Image
Thank You

Your copy of Freelancing Meets Gen Z Modern Work Needs will be delivered to your inbox soon.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Side Banner Image
Join the world's work marketplace

Recommended research

Join the world's work marketplace

Find great talent. Find great work. Are you ready to move your business or career forward?

Find talent
Find work
Get Started