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The Future of Work

This Is What The State Of Freelancing In The U.S. Means For The Future Of Work

Freelancers Union founder shares what the results of their second annual study of independent workers reveals about the future of work.

It wasn’t that long ago that if you were a freelancer, you felt bad about what you did—like you were somehow less than your peers. It was something that you did as a default move—you went through a life change, or you were trying to break into an industry that wouldn’t have you. That may never have been true; these days, it’s just dead wrong.

Freelancers are assembling their work lives in different ways than they have before, and for different reasons. Yet as a society, we still have a profound misunderstanding of who these independent workers are and what they do.

The Freelancers Union has partnered with Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) to commission our second annual independent study of the freelance workforce. The results are fascinating.

Freelancers are a growing workforce. There are now almost 54 million Americans freelancing, an increase of 700,000 over last year. That’s more than a third of the American workforce. Millennials, as I’ve argued before, are native freelancers, and it shows: They are freelancing at a higher rate than any other group.

Independent workers are freelancing by choice. Survey respondents told us that they’re freelancing because of the flexibility, freedom, and balance that it offers. In our survey, 60% of respondents said they started freelancing more by choice than by necessity, compared to last year’s figure of 53%.

Critically, half of freelancers we talked to said that they wouldn’t take a traditional job, no matter how much it paid. And because being a freelancer lets you work from anywhere, a third of freelancers say they have been able to move because of the flexibility their career provides.

Freelancing Pays. Maybe most significantly, we found that full-time freelancers say they actually earn more than the average American worker, and a majority say they’re earning more money than when they had a traditional job. And nearly half predict that their incomes will go up in the coming year, with many directly attributing that to an increase in demand for their services.

But big challenges remain. Still, this growing, energized, efficient group of workers—busily remaking the American labor landscape—faces enormous challenges. Unlike their peers, they have no reasonable safety net.

They don’t have access to unemployment insurance, so during fallow periods they usually have to cannibalize their own savings. They can’t take advantage of tax withholding, employer-sponsored health care, or retirement savings programs.

And far too many of the people exploring working for emerging companies in the so-called on-demand economy—many of whom are low-wage workers—are discovering that piecework in the internet age still pays too little, offers no benefits, and is even less steady than the gig work they were used to.

And yet, no one is stepping forward with solutions. The employers themselves are busy singing their own praises instead of making basic concessions to the workers driving their profits. And even in this political season, the candidates for president—desperate as they are to appeal to untapped caches of voters—have not yet begun to talk to freelancers and independent workers.

That’s a mistake: Freelancers are a large and motivated voting bloc. In our survey, 86% said they plan to vote in the 2016 election. That’s a staggering turnout figure. And 62% said they’d vote for the candidate who supports independent workers’ interests. That means millions of votes are up for grabs.

But this isn’t just a discussion about electioneering—forging solutions for freelancers is the right thing to do. And not just because it would rectify the mistreatment of one segment of our society: With more and more Americans freelancing every year, the chance that you yourself will be freelancing one day is higher than ever. And along with the many upsides it brings are the downsides—and from the graphic designer to the freelance financial consultant to the dog walker, all of us are increasingly vulnerable to them.

Surely, if we believe that traditional workers need these protections to thrive, then all workers need them.

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