It’s an interesting time for freelancers. For many independent workers, it’s obvious that self-employment is more than a passing fad, but recent headlines have all but dismissed this entire sector of the economy. “The Gig Economy is a Dud,” wrote a Wall Street Journal blog. “Maybe the Gig Economy Isn’t Reshaping Work After All,” mused The New York Times.
The impetus was the release of Bureau of Labor Statistics data that found that in 2017, 10.1% of workers had “alternative employment arrangements” (independent contractor work, temp jobs, on-call jobs and work through contract firms ) — about the same as in 2005, when it was 10.7 percent.
However, the survey only included people whose main job is independent and who work in service industries, noted Steve King, a principal of Emergent Research, which studies the freelance economy, in a recent blog post. “So, for example, independent workers who have an Etsy or Amazon store, or any kind of product-based business are excluded – even if it’s their primary source of income,” he wrote.
As a result, the BLS’s data only includes three out of five freelancers, noted King, who expressed concerns that an incomplete understanding of the statistics will “lead many to conclude work, jobs and the workforce are not changing.”
Perhaps more reflective of the state of freelancing in America, he noted, was a recent Federal Reserve study, which found that 31% of adults do independent work.
Not long after the other two studies came out, the U.S. Census Bureau released its nonemployer statistics, which track businesses where the owners are the only employees. They grew by 2 percent from 24,331,403 in 2015 to 24,813,048 in 2016.
It’s against this backdrop that some of the platforms catering to freelance workers have been going into overdrive lately to call attention to the market they serve.
Today, for instance, Moonlighting, which caters to side giggers, released a mini-reality series on YouTube, Stories from the American Dream. It will have 10 episodes featuring freelancers such as singers, photographers and makeup artists who are working for performers in the music industry who hired them.
Founder and CEO Jeff Tennery, who was a senior executive at Verizon prior to launching the company, says many users of his site are turning to side work because their traditional salaries don’t cut it. “People are not saving enough, not covering their bills, and have too much debt,” he says.
The site, based in Charlottesville, Va., is currently embarking on an initial coin offering to raise $25 million to pay for its future growth. It currently has more than 650,000 registered freelancers but Tennery hopes to reach more. He says millennials have been especially receptive to the freelance lifestyle.
“There is a fundamental mental shift in that generation,” says Tennery. “They’re going to try to work smarter and say, ‘I saw my parents get hosed in 2008. I don’t want to work for big corporations. They’re not looking out for my best interests.’”
Meanwhile, the accounting platform FreshBooks has been championing new apps designed to make it easier to freelance in its Reshape the World Challenge, run with Fidelity. The recently announced winners were CircleLink Health, which connects self-employed registered nurses who offer telephone health coaching to older Americans with multiple chronic health conditions out of Stamford, Ct., and New York City; Croissant, also based in New York City, which allows freelancers and small teams to bounce around among multiple coworking spaces by the hour, with a single monthly membership; and ShearShare, a Dallas startup, which lets freelance stylists to rent unused salon space by the day.
“The deconstructing of age-old industries—like beauty and barbering—in support of the independent worker is vital to the health of our world economy,” Courtney Caldwell, founder of ShearShare put it in a statement.
In periods like the one we’re in now, where employment is high, many people have historically chosen to work in traditional jobs because they like getting a steady paycheck and health benefits, which are costly. Not everyone is risk tolerant enough to be happily self-employed, and those who are involuntarily freelancing to make ends meet tend to shift out of it once they have other options.
But with salaries failing to keep pace with the cost of living for many years now, what’s changed is that holding a traditional job and freelancing are no longer mutually exclusive. Many people are both traditional workers and freelancers, as the Fed study underlines. That’s an important trend, and it’s likely to continue.
Meanwhile, the BLS’s data, though not reflective of all independent workers, found that among the full-time free agents in service fields that the government surveyed, one-third are ages 55 and older, as King has noted. This is a group of workers who are very vulnerable to age discrimination in corporate America, and alternative ways of making a living are likely to become increasingly important to many with each passing year.
Right now, there are plenty of freelancing platforms and service providers to the self-employed that are finding opportunity in serving independent workers. Those in the private sector know this is a large market, or they wouldn’t be going after it.
The big question will be whether we’ll someday also be seeing government surveys taking a detailed look at what will make the economic life of freelancers more sustainable–or policymakers trying to provide it. Whether freelancers are side giggers or full-time independent professionals, their numbers are substantial, yet their needs are still, in 2018, mostly getting ignored.
Elaine Pofeldt is author of The Million-Dollar, One Person Business (Random House, January 2, 2018), a book looking at how to break $1M in revenue in a business staffed only by the owners.