To all the freelancers: would you give up self-employment for a full-time corporate job that offers greater security? A change that trades the autonomy and lifestyle of freelance work for the regular pay, benefits and interaction of an office job.
I would struggle with it. Having been self-employed for 12 years I cannot imagine commuting to and from work, taking instructions from a boss, wasting time in unnecessary meetings, being stressed by company politics or sitting at a cubicle all day. Or sacrificing income and relying on one employer to put food on the table, in a ruthless jobs market.
I’m not alone. About half of freelancers surveyed in the latest Freelancing in America Report said there is “no amount of money where they would take a traditional job”.
For the first time, as many survey respondents viewed freelancing as a long-term career choice, not a temporary way to make money.
Technology is making it easier for freelancers to find work, and the gig economy, despite its faults, is encouraging a portfolio, project-based approach to jobs.
For context, an estimated 57 million people freelance in the United States, or just over a third of the country’s workforce, and half of them believe they will never return to a traditional job.
Yes, extrapolating survey results can be dangerous. Released this month, the Freelancing in America Report 2019 surveyed 6001 US adults. It broadly defines freelancers as people who have engaged in supplemental, project-based or contract-based work within the past 12 months. The data picks up freelancers, independent contractors, “moonlighters” such a food couriers, and “job hustlers”, those people in full-time work who have a part-time gig on the side.
My guess is the online sample attracted many successful freelancers, skewing the results and positivity. There are downsides with freelancing: no leave entitlements, lack of professional development, isolation and clients who take forever to pay.
Also, the finding that “no amount of money” would entice half of US freelancers to return to a corporate job is curious. Everybody has their price and I’m sure many would jump at an office job that doubled or tripled their income even if they missed the freelance lifestyle.
I doubt the US finding would be anywhere near as strong here. There is scant data on Australia’s gig economy and freelancer estimates vary. The Future of Work in Australia report in 2018 estimated just under 10 per cent of Australian workers have multiple jobs (excluding independent contractors who have one job) and that the figure has been steady for years.
Talk about the gig economy boom in Australian is arguably overstated, although numbers and growth are much higher if independent contractors are added in the mix.
Caveats aside, the US report has several implications.
First, freelancers will become a larger part of the global workforce in the next decade. More part-timers are moving to full-time freelance work and freelancers contribute nearly $US1 trillion to the US economy.
Second, there is growing anti-corporate sentiment among freelancers. When half of US freelancers say they would never return to a traditional corporate work, you know something is wrong with the job design, corporate culture and how companies treat staff.
Third, industry will struggle to attract talent from a large and growing pool of freelancers in coming decades as skills shortages intensify. Companies will need to replace retiring baby boomers but more people will work for themselves and be reluctant to return to a traditional job. The gig economy that helped corporates lower costs could come back to bite them.
When half of US freelancers say they would never return to a traditional corporate work, you know something is wrong…
Fourth, governments worldwide are off the pace in the gig economy. Scant thought has been given to how freelancers and other self-employed people are protected, encouraged and developed, or to the infrastructure needed for an army of freelancer workers. More councils launching co-working facilities in the suburbs and regional areas would be a good start.
How can new regulations help freelancers flourish and ensure the gig economy does not become a sewer of freelancer exploitation by big business? For example, moonlighters in the on-demand economy – food couriers are particularly vulnerable. Left unchecked, the gig economy is an avenue to bring developing-nation-like wages and conditions to parts of our workforce.
Universities and vocational training colleges are also lagging in the gig economy. What is their role in helping people develop specialist freelance skills and encouraging them to engage in lifelong learning and professional development? Too much university education is still geared towards corporate work.
How are service providers responding to the freelance boom? When will it be easier for freelancers to borrow money from banks or rent a property for a home-based business, or get cheaper legal and accounting advice or insurance?
How does being a freelancer affect your chances of getting a loan?
And what of the societal implications of the freelancing boom and gig economy? For every successful micro-venture, many more struggle. Also, as the supply of freelancers grows worldwide, their income and conditions will inevitably stagnate – a trend well underway in some knowledge-based jobs. Then there are potential health issues as more people work on their own and lose the benefits of office interaction and colleague support.
Thankfully, Australia seems a long way behind the US in the freelancer stakes (depending on how it is defined). Yet the trend is heading in one direction: more people leaving traditional jobs for self-employment and having a portfolio of project-based work.
And never wanting to come back.