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The Future of Work

What Stops Workers From Going Freelance

According to a new survey by Freelancers Union and Upwork, 81% of workers say they would consider freelancing. So why don’t they?

What Stops Workers From Going Freelance

[Photo: ArthurHidden/iStock]

Freelancers love to freelance, according to a survey commissioned by the Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization that advocates for independent workers, and Upwork, the largest online freelance marketplace.

The survey found that among freelancers (defined in this case as any adult that has taken a full- or part-time freelance assignment or worked as a temp in the last 12 months), 63% say they started freelancing by choice rather than necessity, and 79% said that freelancing is better than working a normal job. Perhaps most convincingly, half of the freelancers in the survey who had quit a traditional job in order to start freelancing said that no amount of money would convince them to go back to a traditional job.

But as much as freelancers say that they like freelancing—and as whimsical the idea of working from a beach in Belize or a coffee shop in Bucharest, Romania, might sound—full-time freelancing is not something that everyone wants to take on.

While 81% of non-freelancers they would "be willing to do additional work outside of [their] primary job if it was available and enabled [them] to make more money," only 37% of people who freelanced in addition to another job said they had considered freelancing full-time. Many respondents said they would like to quit their day jobs, but wouldn't.

What's stopping them? The survey asked about that, too. It found:

They want consistency. Workers’ desire for flexibility has been a mantra among freelance and gig economy proponents (73% of respondents in the Upwork/Freelancers Union survey said it was a reason for freelancing). But consistency is pretty great, too. The most popular reason that part-time freelancers kept their day jobs was "worries about income predictability."

This mirrors the concerns of freelancers who have already gone full-time, who ranked unpredictable income as their second biggest concern.

They’re worried about income. The second and third most popular reasons freelancers kept a day job that they didn't want boiled down to fear of failure. About half of would-be full-time freelancers chose "concern that you would be able to find enough work to support yourself" as a reason they don't take the leap, and 44% said "uncertainty that ‘you could make it on your own’" as a factor. Failing is arguably especially scary as a freelancer, as independent workers are not covered by unemployment insurance.

Full-time freelancers in the survey said that finding work isn’t actually a big issue. More than half said they have the right amount of work (23% said they had more work than they wanted, and 25% said they had too little work). But inconsistent income did impact them.

In the survey, 51% of freelancers said they would spend more money if they knew they would have a reliable income and unemployment benefits, compared to 31% of non-freelancers. While non-freelancers were more likely than freelancers to save for retirement, more freelancers said they saved for the period in-between jobs.

They want benefits. The fourth most popular reason part-time freelancers didn’t quit their other job, which 37% said influenced their decision, was a "desire to keep company-sponsored benefits." Twenty percent of full-time freelancers, meanwhile, said they don’t have health insurance.

What To Do About It

Think tank thinkers, labor leaders, startup founders, and others have proposed policy updates that could mitigate some of these fears. The Freelancers Union/Upwork survey asked freelancers what they think are the most important issues (and makes the point that freelancers vote).

One popular idea for creating more stability for freelancers is to create a system of portable benefits that aren’t attached to a specific job, but rather to which multiple employers can contribute. A broad coalition of leaders signed a letter in support of the idea last year. The survey found that 66% of freelancers preferred to have more pay with which to choose their own benefits, compared to 34% who would prefer to receive less pay and a package of benefits from an employer or client.

Freelancers in the survey ranked health insurance and liability insurance as the most important benefits or support programs (unemployment insurance came in second to last). But revamping benefits wasn’t at the very top of freelancers' lists. When asked to rank priorities for policymakers, only 20% of freelancers who said they would vote ranked "ensuring benefit options were available regardless of employment status, including to independent professionals," as a top priority.

The survey respondents didn’t resoundingly agree on the best role for policymakers. The top choice, at 38% of freelancers, was that policymakers should better understand the freelance workforce and its economic impact. On this point, perhaps they’ve already been heard: The Bureau of Labor Statistics will do its own survey of contingent workers next year, for the first time since 2005.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of freelancers in the study who said they would quit their jobs to freelance full-time.

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