Even if you’re not a freelancer or moonlighter yourself, it’s becoming more likely that you have independent workers in your family or social circle. You’ve seen that this segment of the workforce is growing in size and importance. But the federal government isn’t keeping up with the times: the laws that govern workplace and personnel issues aren’t yet targeted—and in fact, until this month, there hasn’t even been a comprehensive government tally of the independent workforce since 2005.
A lot of the problems that affect independent workers are issues that can only truly be solved by changes in policy. If you’re a working mom who’s juggling childcare with a flexible schedule as a copywriter, you’re working as hard as you can to balance your financial demands against the demands of holding a family together. You need your government to be responsive to you. But as we keep finding, it’s impossible for leaders to make policy—or even for workers to ask for changes in policy—if we don’t have the data to show us the size and shape of the problem.
In a speech at the New America Foundation in early June urging action on supporting the so-called "gig economy," Senator Mark Warner seized on just this point: "It’s fairly stunning to me," he said, "that this much transformation has already taken place but virtually nobody in Washington is starting to ask the policy questions."
A new study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), commissioned by Senator Patty Murray of Washington and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in concert with the Freelancers Union, begins to chip away at that problem by surveying the size of this new segment of the workforce—but it also shows us how far we have to go in understanding the changes that are underway. Here’s what we learned:
The sector of workers who don’t have traditional full-time jobs—whether by choice or not—is a sizable and growing portion of the workforce. Overall, the share of earners with alternative work arrangements increased to 40.4% of the workforce in 2010, up from 35.3% in 2006. And the fact that this data is five years old most likely means that the share of independent workers is even larger today.
The biggest jump was in part-time workers, who increased as a share of the workforce to 16.2% from 11.9% in just four years, mostly likely as a result of the recession: "Involuntary part-time" has doubled since 2007, before the recession. There were also smaller upticks in self-employed workers and so-called "on-call" workers.
That should tell us that the much-hailed flexibility of the new economy isn’t all that’s driving this change. Unfortunately, it’s also economic instability, and a recovery that hasn’t yet benefited some of the working communities we need it to. The report makes clear where we could do better.
For example, contingent workers make at least 10% less per hour than traditional workers. Contingent workers are also two-thirds less likely to be participating in employer-provided retirement plans, meaning they may have to rely on public safety-net programs down the road. That’s a clear-cut policymaking area that we can tackle now.
Many of these independent and contingent workers report lower job-satisfaction than their peers that have more job stability. But there’s some significant and encouraging news if you dig a little deeper into the data: about 86% of independent contractors and self-employed workers say that they’re satisfied with their jobs and wouldn’t change their type of employment.
In plain terms, a huge majority of people who work for themselves or have struck non-traditional work arrangements are happy with their lives. The challenge for all of us is to figure out is how to bridge the gap between the self-employed worker who’s satisfied with her setup and the contingent worker who’s not—because she’s less in control and more vulnerable to disruptions in the job market.
It’s hard to read this report and not come away convinced that there’s a lot we don’t know. The report wasn’t a survey of actual workers: it was a survey of surveys, and many of them are already verging on outdated. Most of the report’s 74 pages are spent explaining that in the government’s eyes there isn’t even yet a proper definition of what an independent worker is. That seems like an easy—and necessary—starting point for doing better for freelancers.
The American labor force has undergone clear, regular evolutions over the course of this country’s industrial and post-industrial history. The latest evolution is the move away from the 40-hour work week, overtime-pay, and the kind of union-bargained benefits that made a middle-class life automatic for so many.
Today’s workforce is full of success stories of people working independently, working harder (often by choice) and feeling more fulfilled than ever before. The GAO report shows us that this cohort is now a major and expanding force. But despite its growing ubiquity, the freelance movement is happening in relative statistical and policy-making darkness. Changing that should be a national priority. This study is a laudable first step. The next, and the one after that, must be better. Because if independent workers are going to be heard, first they need to be counted.