Even as the growing number of freelancers in the United States becomes a political issue, data about what that number is or how much it is growing remain woefully imperfect. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently estimated the size of the freelance workforce at "less than 5 percent to more than a third of the total employed labor force, depending on widely varying definitions of contingent work."
On Thursday, the Freelancers Union and online work marketplace Upwork released their second annual commissioned study on the topic, which surveyed 7,100 working adults. The percentage of freelancers (which, for this survey, includes temp workers and anyone who has been paid as a freelancer in the last 12 months, regardless of how dependent they are upon the income) held steady at around 34%. This is more or less consistent with other markers that show a slow, steady increase in freelance work.
What was more interesting about the study was the type of freelance income that people reported.
Much of the political discussion around freelancers has revolved around companies like Uber, which use apps to dole out jobs to an army of independent contractors rather than hiring a workforce. When Hillary Clinton said she’d crack down on employers who were misclassifying workers as independent contractors, it was immediately interpreted as a swipe at Uber. Soon after, Jeb Bush took an Uber to visit Thumbtack, an on-demand platform that delivers leads to independent businesses.
Thursday’s survey suggests, however, that Uber-like businesses have yet to meaningfully change the way freelancers work. Just 3% of the independent workforce Upwork and the Freelance Union surveyed reported earning at least 91% of their income through so-called "sharing economy" platforms like Uber, Etsy, and Postmates.
What makes these platforms more relevent to the "gig economy" is that, according to this survey, the income they provide is expanding quickly.
Last year, about 17% of respondents said they earned at least 10% of their income in the sharing economy (a misleading term, but alas, the common one). This year, 31% of respondents said the same. That suggests that the number of people earning a significant chunk of income from platforms like Uber, Etsy, and Postmates almost doubled.
On-demand work may not be booming, but it is growing.