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Why Gen-Xers And Baby Boomers Are Beating Millennials At Freelancing

LinkedIn finds that three in four freelancers who use its ProFinder platform to land gigs are 41 and over. What’s drawing them all?

Why Gen-Xers And Baby Boomers Are Beating Millennials At Freelancing
[Source photos: Flickr users Kate Russell, Deseronto Archives]

You may think of freelancing as something twentysomethings do to earn a little extra side money, and you’d be right. But it isn’t true (and might even be a little bit ageist to imagine) that the freelance economy is powered mainly by the scrappy energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the young.

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While Upwork and the Freelancers Union found considerably higher shares of gen Z and millennials picking up some form gig work than in more senior generations, younger workers are more likely to freelance on a part-time basis. The picture changes considerably when you look at those who work for themselves full-time.

In a new survey here at LinkedIn, we polled more than 4,000 members of ProFinder, our freelancer marketplace. Since around three-quarters of respondents were full-time freelance professionals, this dataset makes for a great snapshot of people who earn a living working for themselves. And as it turns out, the share of full-timers is just about equivalent to the share who are 41 and over: about three out of four.

If that sounds like a lot, it actually shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. PwC researchers found something similar, with a considerable 65% of workers over 50 expressing the wish to go solo if they haven’t already, compared to just 33% of those ages 25–34. “The desire to work independently actually goes up with age,” the researchers wrote in a report last year. “Those ages 50 and older are roughly two times more likely to want to work independently than those ages 18–34.”

Here’s why are older generations might be gravitating toward freelance work in such numbers–seemingly even more so than millennials.


Related: Born Between Generations? Here’s How It Can Help Your Career


Robust Professional Networks

While we found that 43% of millennials find it hard to stay in touch with former colleagues and acquaintances, older cohorts don’t. Just 31% of gen Xers and boomers report having that difficulty. Because freelancers often look to their networks to find business leads–81% of our pros cited word-of-mouth referrals and networking as their main sources of freelance work–more senior freelancers seem to have accumulated more total connections than their younger counterparts.

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And unsurprisingly, it’s not just a numbers game, either: Older freelancers’ contacts are more likely to have more senior titles as well. That makes for professional networks featuring people who wield more influence and decision-making power–including the power to hire contractors.

Everybody Likes Autonomy–Not Just Millennials

One of many tired stereotypes that millennials are sick of hearing is that they’re freewheeling, independent-minded workers who prize the ability to work autonomously. But at base, who wouldn’t want a little more say over their own work? Like much else, that’s hardly a generation-specific trait. In a ReportLinker survey last year, the ability to be one’s own boss was the top motivation for going solo that those who’d already made the leap to freelancing cited; the ability to work flexible hours came in a close second.

Likewise, we found that more than half of our pros cited flexibility and convenience as the best parts of being a freelancer. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine why the higher up the ranks people rise, the more independence they might crave.

Freedom To Choose

One former recruiter Fast Company recently spoke with lamented that in recruiting, “nobody really believes in the gig economy” and that stretches of self-employment are frequently interpreted as failures to score full-time roles. But to the extent that that’s true, gen X and baby boomer freelancers seem to be turning that to their advantage by building solo careers on the foundations of traditional ones.

Indeed, the ProFinder data suggests this 41-and-up subset of freelancers do have the skills to hack it in the corporate world, too; 70% had worked for more than eight years in traditional jobs, and another 70% report having “advanced” technical expertise in their fields.

Ageism

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean age discrimination isn’t a factor in older workers turning to freelancing (in fact, that same ex-recruiter said she’s seen a lot of it). In 2014, AARP researchers found that 64% of adults had experienced age discrimination in the workplace, with 92% of that group saying their own experiences were common, not just one-off flukes.

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Related: Why Your Company Needs To Stop Recruiting “Digital Natives”


Ageism in the corporate world might actually drive freelancing on two fronts. First, older employees (who generally earn more money) might make for more enticing layoff targets for employers. And second, if older workers are experiencing age-based discrimination in the workplace, it isn’t a leap to suspect that they’re being discriminated against during the hiring process as well, making it tougher for them to find work–and incentivizing them to pursue freelance opportunities.

In any event, it may be that millennials are getting a bit too much credit for driving the rise of the gig economy while their elders fly under the radar–even if they’re succeeding in the process.


Thogori Karago, senior product manager, and Yu Liu, product manager, lead the LinkedIn ProFinder team, LinkedIn’s online marketplace for freelancers.