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Freelancers Are Planning For The Future Of Work Faster Than Anyone Else

The new “Freelancing in America” report finds that freelancers are skilling up for the future of work right now.

Freelancers Are Planning For The Future Of Work Faster Than Anyone Else
[Photo: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash]

The freelance workforce is growing more than three times faster than the U.S. workforce overall, according to the annual “Freelancing in America” (FIA) survey by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, released today. The number of U.S. freelancers now stands at 57.3 million, representing an 8.1% jump over the last three years, when the FIA survey estimated the total American freelance workforce at 53 million. By comparison, the U.S. workforce as a whole grew 2.6%, from 156 million to 160 million, over the same period.

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At this rate, freelancers will be the majority by 2027. But perhaps more striking is the finding that freelancers seem to be preparing for this future more swiftly than their counterparts at traditional employers. Polling more than 6,000 adults who’ve done paid work in the last year (2,173 of whom were freelancers), nearly half (49%) of full-time freelancers told researchers that their work is already feeling the impact of AI and robotics. Only 18% of the traditional workforce said the same.

Perhaps that’s why 65% of independent workers claimed to be staying on top of career prep as jobs and skills evolve and machine learning gets more sophisticated; more than half said they’ve set aside time to brush up just within the past six months. That’s in contrast to 45% of non-freelance workers who are taking similar steps.

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While the FIA survey didn’t ask freelancers to specify which job skill they’re developing, this finding might surprise LinkedIn researchers, who recently polled more than 1,000 active professionals on the platform’s ProFinder network, and found only one in five who reported being concerned that AI might eliminate their jobs within the next couple of decades. Speaking last  month with Fast Company, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman explained it this way:

AI as a massive threat to jobs is still in some ways years off in different areas and different zones. A key part of freelancing is establishing a quick connection with a customer or a client, and then figuring out the job and working on it and so forth. AI is probably not a factor in that.

[Another] key thing that most freelancers are looking for is [that] they want this year to go well. They’re working toward acquiring a stable group of clients. That’s actually the top threat, versus, “Oh yeah, maybe there’s some new technology that’s coming down the pipe that could change the landscape.”

For his part, Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel, who coauthored the FIA study, disagrees. Being in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution means automation and AI are driving work to change right now, he believes. Kasriel says that we’re now confronting a unique opportunity to guide the future of work–and that freelancers will have a greater hand in that than people realize.

“Professionals who choose to freelance make this choice knowing that, as their own boss, they are in control of their destiny,” Kasriel explained in a statement. “Freelancers, therefore, think more proactively about market trends and refresh their skills more often than traditional employees, helping to advance our economy.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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