Survey Report: “Freelancing in America: 2015”

Every year the Freelancers Union conducts a survey of Freelancers. This years report “Freelancing in America 2015 Report” was released earlier this month. The report is based on a survey of over 7,000 by Edelman Berland (methods described here).

The main conclusion is that “Freelancing is becoming a more prevalent, viable option for workers, a trend that spans across borders, industries and occupations.

The survey reports that 54 million Americans performed Freelance work in the last year, something like 34% of all workers. 75% of these workers Freelance by choice (younger and older workers are more likely to choose to freelance), and most earn as much or more than earlier conventional jobs.

The survey identifies several (self identified?) categories of “freelancers”:

  • Independent Contractors (36%)
  • Moonlighters (25%) (in addition to “regular” employment)
  • Diversified workers (26%) (who “partly” freelance)
  • Temporary Workers (9%)
  • Freelance Business Owners (5%) (?!)

The “diversified” workers includes participants in the “sharing” economy, a laUber. This category grew the most.

The survey indicates that Freelancing definitely seems to be enabled by digital technology, which enables people to work easily from anywhere. Importantly, digital technology also plays a key role in finding gigs, too. In other words, this socioeconomic phenomenon is heavily dependent on ubiquitous networked digital technology.

This report is clearly “spun” to emphasize the positive. The reported number of “freelancers” is surprisingly high, until you realize that the survey counts anyone who “engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work, within the past 12 months” as a freelancer. If you did any work that you consider “freelancing”—including moonlighting and “freelance business owner”—you count as a freelancer. True, all these workers do share many similar concerns, but there is a big difference between trying to make a living as an independent contractor 100% and, say, moonlighting a few hours a week.

The report about (self-reported) earnings is also surprising, especially considering the proportions of part time and temporary workers in the population. We don’t really know what is included in those figures (e.g., how are benefits and overheads accounted?), or whether freelancers are earning a lot or perhaps abandoning low paying jobs in favor of better, but still low paying freelancing.  Or, we may hope, perhaps many workers are seeing better earnings.

This upbeat report mentions but does not dwell on the challenges of freelance workers, which are similar to those faced by all workers (health care, pensions), as well as insecurity about unpredictable future income and slow payment by clients. While gig-to-gig freelancing is obviously insecure, “permanent” employees probably face similar insecurity.

Of course, the Freelancers Union itself is a direct response to these insecurities: the FU is a twenty first century redesign of the twentieth century industrial union, to serve exactly this new population of freelancers.

Along these lines, the report argues that “We have entered a new era. … Instead of working 9-to-5, more are working project-to-project and gig-to-gig.”  This is important, they say, “…more than an economic change. It’s a cultural and social change on par with the Industrial Revolution.” (p. 5)

[T]his shift to a more independent workforce have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power. (p. 5)

I can’t rally disagree, though this particular report is less than compelling.

Examining the data closely, we could come up with a much smaller number of freelancers by excluding part timers, or by considering “full time equivalents”, or something. We also would want to compare the reported satisfaction and earnings with other workers doing similar work. And most important, we would be concerned about the long term results of gig-to-gig working—which will not show up in any one year survey.

Don’t get me wrong: this is important stuff, and I’m totally on the side of the FU. It is a really good idea, and absolutely needed.  I’m a member myself, even though I have not done any paid freelancing in the last year.  Stronger together!

But this particular survey is a bit of a political fluff piece, and must be taken with a grain of salt.


 

  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2015. Freelancers Unioin and Upwork, New York, 2015. https://fu-web-storage-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/content/filer_public/59/e7/59e70be1-5730-4db8-919f-1d9b5024f939/survey_2015.pdf

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