Charlie Pabst is a graphic designer. Before going freelance, he had a full-time day job where he designed coffee shops all around the world. But each night, Pabst would come home and mock up logos and websites for fictional companies. At first, it was just a creative outlet. Then he started posting some of his designs online.
The initial response was positive. For the first time, he says, “in the back of my mind I thought maybe I could actually make a go of it.” Pabst started hunting around for freelance work and eventually got hired to design a book cover for a connected client. The client was pleased, and promoted Pabst’s work on his website, which reaches a few hundred thousand people.
It jump-started Pabst’s freelance career. He quit his job, accepting lower pay at first in exchange for freedom and flexibility.
In that, Pabst is hardly alone. According to the latest data by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, the were some 55 million gig workers in the U.S. alone, accounting for 35% of the national workforce, up 2 million from 2015. Out of nearly 1,000 freelancers my company, Workplace Trends, interviewed last year, 89% had a full-time job before they started freelancing, while only 10% plan to go back to full-time work within the next four years–and that’s even though a solid 26% found themselves forced into gig work involuntarily, through layoffs or insufficient income. The typical gig worker has five or fewer clients, works fewer than 40 hours a week, and usually works on contracts of one to five months.
In short, freelancing is popular, and even if many are taking up side gigs because they need to and not because they want to, it’s clear that money is far from the only motivator. In fact, traditional employers should take note: The lifestyle perks are often so appealing that many will forgo income stability, benefits, and even higher pay overall in exchange for the freedom and flexibility they aren’t finding at desk jobs.
Through multiple online surveys and direct conversations with freelancers, this autonomy is the top recurring theme. People become–and then remain–full-time freelancers mainly because they want to work when and where they want, and on a diverse set of projects that align with their values and passions.
Take Stefanie O’Connell, a personal finance writer, who spoke with me while freelancing from the mountains of Colombia. She’s more than willing to work weird hours sometimes as long as that lets her travel. She says she’s become a pro at shifting her lifestyle to accommodate clients’ needs on the fly.
“I’ve created a flexible infrastructure through freelancing that allows me to adapt,” she said. While money is important, especially as someone who writes about how young people can save it, she saw gig work as the path to a more fulfilling life–even though it was a financial struggle at first.
Travel perks aside, some freelancers also stick with it because it lets them choose which projects to work on. Colleen Cagney, a graphic designer based in Santa Monica, California, was working full-time and eventually quit in order to add more variety to her work. She took a pay cut to start, but Cagney saw it as an investment in expanding her skills more than she could at her corporate job.
“As a freelancer,” she says, “I now have complete control over the clients I choose to work with and the jobs I take on.” Cagney is grateful for giving herself the freedom of choice. When she became a freelancer, it also freed her up to spend more time with her husband. Looking back, Cagney hadn’t realized how much her personal life had had to bend to the demands of her job, and freelancing has since improved their marriage.
It’s not all upsides, though. The freedom and flexibility these freelancers opt for comes at a cost. In our study, 47% said they’re still making less money now than they did as full-time employees. We even found that 63% earn less than $30,000 annually, far below the average U.S. living wage, which according to the career site Zippia varies by state but ranges between $45,000 and $68,000. So while that figure includes part-time freelancers with other sources of income, it’s still a good bet that trouble making ends meet is a top reason why over a quarter of freelancers told us they are looking to get back into full-time roles.
Simon Green, a digital media consultant, says the stress of finding a steady stream of clients is considerable. “There have been periods when things get really dry and that’s when the anxiety kicks in,” he told me. And for Cagney, gaining more time for her personal life sometimes comes at the price of iffier work-life balance. “Sometimes I have to work irregular hours to meet client deadlines,” she says.
And when you’re essentially running an entire business by yourself, the administrative duties can gum up the works. O’Connell says she’s sometimes frustrated by having to manage direct deposits, contracts, and invoices on her own. “Paperwork for freelancing is surprisingly archaic”, she explains, and clients don’t always make her life any easier since they all use different types of contracts and payment methods.
But for all these drawbacks, many still wouldn’t go back to corporate life. After all, full-time workers at traditional companies all weigh the pros and cons of that type of work, too. For employers who are looking to keep their work cultures attractive, the data suggests that a little more flexibility and autonomy can probably go a long way. And as for freelancers themselves, their choices make it clear that what’s long been true still is–across all types of work: that feeling happy with your job comes down to more than just your paycheck.