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The Future of Work

The State Of The American Freelancer In 2015

Freelancing has become the preferred way to work for millions. Here's what's important to our growing nation of independent workers.

[Photo: everything possible via Shutterstock]

When job prospects dwindled in the wake of the 2008 recession, many took to freelancing as a temporary solution to help pay the bills in the interim. Seven years later, however, research shows that freelancers are now in it for the long haul, reporting higher job satisfaction and an apprehension towards returning to the traditional nine-to-five structure.

While freelancing was once considered a temporary option, 67% of the 643 freelancers recently surveyed by Contently, an online resource that provides news and insights on the freelance economy, intend to continue freelancing for 10 years or more. When asked if they would take a full-time job in their field with identical pay plus benefits, only 30.2% said yes, 31.9% would decline, and 37.9% responded with a maybe.

"When I was freelancing full time, before I became an editor, I was pursuing a [freelance] career as a way to get a more traditional full-time job, and I wasn't necessarily thinking about doing this for 10 to 20 years," said Jordan Teicher, an associate editor who led data collection and analysis for Contently’s The State of Freelancing in 2015 study. "I think that attitude is starting to change, and it's interesting to see that reflected in the data."

Today 53 million Americans, or 34% of the U.S. workforce, are considered contingent, temporary, diversified, or freelance employees, and that number is expected to reach 40% by the year 2020.

Cautious Optimism

Freelancers are optimistic about the current state of their working conditions, with 65% reporting an increase in job satisfaction in the past year, but there is still reason for concern. Many freelancers still aren't making enough to live on. The median salary of those surveyed by Contently was between $10,001 and $20,000 per year, with just over 19% earning over $50,000 in the past 12 months.

"It's good that they're thinking and planning on doing this for a while, but there's a lag between what they want to do and what they are doing," adds Teicher.

According to Teicher, freelancers and employers continue to struggle when it comes to determining fair compensation for freelance work. With few benchmarks and standards to draw from, rates can vary widely between employers for similar work, compensation arrives at inconsistent intervals, and there are no formal means to settle disputes between employers and their non-full time staff.

"Building off the whole idea of accountability and bridging the gap between the people paying the freelancers and the freelancers themselves, they need some sort of governing body or something that can give them collective power," argues Teicher.

Is It Time For Freelancers To Organize?

The Contently study found that more than two-thirds of respondents would be interested in joining a legalized union. Freelancers, however, are unable to unionize in the United States under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

"If you're an independent contractor, you can't unionize, so when we started Freelancers Union we said, ‘Okay, under the existing law in America they could not unionize, so we're not going to structure ourselves that way," said Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, which she explains is a brand name rather than a legally recognized designation. "We take a page from many different unions—I'm a labor lawyer by training and I've worked for unions myself—so we provide a full suite of benefits for freelancers, like health insurance, dental, disability and life insurance, but also provide a way for freelancers to come together and connect."

Freelancers Union remains among the few resources for the 53 million Americans working without a full-time employer, but as the freelance economy grows, there is a need for stronger advocacy on behalf of contingent workers.

"We've had our members tell us in some fields that they're earning less than they did 20 years ago in real dollars," said Horowitz. "That being said, freelancers are willing to earn less absolute dollars, but be able to have the time to do the things they want to do and value, and that is a new paradigm."

This new paradigm is backed by the research collected by Contently, where 38.7% of survey respondents pointed to the ability to set their own schedule as the best part about freelancing, and another 18.7% most enjoying the ability to work from home.

As the freelance economy continues to grow, however, Horowitz is convinced that new forms of representation and collective advocacy loosely resembling the traditional union will emerge to protect and promote contingent workers.

"What I think we're going to start to see is that people are already building up networks, and those networks will start to be used to talk about how much people are earning, and how to make things fair," she said. "I think we're at the beginning of this great social movement, and it will be interesting to see what entities people will build."