Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will meet onstage tonight for the third and final debate in one of the most tumultuous presidential campaigns in modern history. Chances are good that they'll be talking about the economy, but the odds are low that either one will touch on one of the most important dimensions of it: freelancing.
One in three Americans have freelanced over the past year, according to the third annual Freelancing in America survey that my company, Upwork, published earlier this month in collaboration with the Freelancers Union. As the New York Times's Binyamin Appelbaum recently noted, U.S. politicians are much more apt to invoke the manufacturing sector on the campaign trail, a habit that "distracts from another, simpler way to help working Americans: Improve the conditions of the work they actually do"—which, more and more, is in the service sector.
Independent work is likely to continue thriving no matter what happens at the federal level in the next four years, but the incoming president can choose either to ignore it or support it. After all, there may soon be political costs for failing to serve freelancers' interests. Our research shows that freelance work generates more than $1 trillion in income for Americans each year, and it also contributes to the growth of small businesses: Those who are self-employed and do well often go on to build larger businesses in their own right. And this is despite the fact that national policies are hardly designed to encourage freelancing.
The survey estimates that 55 million people have freelanced in the last year—more than the populations of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida combined. It found that of those, 13.5 million people are already "moonlighting" as freelancers in addition to their day jobs, and that 37% of them have considered quitting their full-time gigs to freelance exclusively. (If they did, that would add 5 million more fully independent contractors to our workforce—almost twice the population of Nevada, where tonight’s debate takes place.)
The data suggests that there'd be many more freelancers if there were fewer obstacles to freelancing. Survey respondents reported that they were confused about the complexity of income taxes, concerned about what to do if a client doesn’t pay them, worried about maintaining a stable income, and anxious that they may not be able to get bank loans (or even open bank accounts, in some cases) without a full-time job.
The need for effective policies to support this type of work wouldn't be clearer. With those in mind, here are three ways the next president's administration can address freelancers’ concerns and help this sector grow even further.
Our government needs to do more information gathering about the state of freelancers in this country—a need that grows more urgent every year. For any major policy changes to be effective, we'll need more reliable data tracking freelancers’ economic impact over time.
The federal government could also be proactive about surveying freelancers to find out what their motivations and interests are. That way the government could help surface resources that assist freelancers with making the transition from full-time employment to working independently.
Efforts like these don't need to mean a major investment of public funds, either. Policymakers simply need to direct more time and attention to these issues, much the way they'd study any other matter of public concern before developing legislation.
Income predictability is the top concern raised by the freelancers we surveyed, and it's no wonder why. Predictability requires understanding your financial situation, having the confidence that you can find work when you need it, and knowing you’ll be paid on time for the work you do. All three are areas where the government can help, but the most immediate payoff would be in supporting programs and technologies that make it easier for freelancers to find clients and get paid. Not only would that make current freelancers' working lives more stable, it would also pave a wider on-ramp to first-time freelancers.
In time, though, the government should really dive deeper, investigating other areas like ensuring access to credit and simplifying tax policy for freelancers. The point is worth reiterating: This is work that large swaths of American society are already doing, meaning it's in the national interest to make it easier for them to do so efficiently and productively.
Since 1953, the federal government has run the
Small Business Administration (SBA), an independent agency that provides a wealth of support services and information to the country’s 28 million small businesses. It's now time for the government to add support for freelancers, too. A good place to start would be the creation of a White House task force on freelancing to better understand the impact the community has on the wider economy, and to evaluate whether expanding the SBA’s mandate may be warranted.
As the election heads into its final few weeks, it's unlikely we'll suddenly start hearing either candidate weigh in on the freelance economy. But as a new administration kicks into gear next year, it will be crucial to begin to make the policy changes that can help such a major part of our economy succeed. Doing so wouldn't just be investing in the future workforce—it would be finally acknowledging a form of work that's already here. The longer we wait to play catch-up, the more pressing the need to do so becomes.
Finally, paying heed to freelancers as a national constituency simply makes political sense. The Freelancing in America survey found that an estimated 47 million freelancers describe themselves as likely to vote, with nearly 7 in 10 saying they're more likely to support a candidate who understands their needs as freelancers. Freelancers are listening closely to hear how the candidates’ policies would affect them. It’s time for the candidates to do a little listening as well.
Stephane Kasriel is the chief executive of Upwork, where he built and led a distributed team of more than 300 engineers located around the world as SVP of engineering before becoming CEO. Stephane holds an MBA from INSEAD, an MSc in computer science from Stanford, and a BS from École Polytechnique in France. Follow him on Twitter at @skasriel.