As the freelance economy grows, its denizens want to revise popular understanding about the work they do. Or as Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel puts it, “There is a feeling that freelancing is about driving Uber cars, and it’s not.”
A new report released today by Upwork and the Freelancer’s Union, titled “Freelancing in America,” estimates that more than one-third of Americans are currently freelancing, and that by 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce will freelance in some capacity. But while those who choose contingent work over traditional employment prefer the flexibility of freelancing, they don’t like to be associated with so-called “gig work.” Only 10% of freelancers surveyed consider themselves a part of the “gig economy.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the word “freelance” itself was something of a dirty word, effectively shorthand for those who couldn’t land full-time jobs. “Saying you’re a freelancer doesn’t signal to others that you’re a know-what-you’re-doing, take-no-crap professional,” wrote Fast Company contributor Suzan Bond, herself a “solopreneur” (Bond’s preferred term), in 2015. “Clients too often see freelance arrangements as low-cost line items rather than strategic partnerships,” she said, advocating instead for thinking about freelance work as running a business of one.
But things seem to have changed. One sign that “freelancing” may have gained some respectability since then is simply its rapid proliferation; according to the “Freelancing in America” (FIA) survey, freelance work is growing by 4% a year. Part of the reason that freelancers may resist being termed “gig workers” is because the phrase implies less-skilled labor acquired through a platform like Uber or Postmates. Many say that kind of work doesn’t apply to them. Roughly 43% of the freelancers surveyed for the FIA report said they got jobs through their own personal and professional networks.
“‘Gig’ makes it sound like platforms are like telling them what to do and people are not empowered,” Kasriel says. “Freelancers,” on the other hand, choose their own destiny, he explains, and subsequently tend to be higher earners. About 36% of freelancers are earning more than $75,000 annually, the survey found, up from 21% in 2015. And more of them are choosing to freelance full-time. When the FIA study started in 2014, only 17% of freelancers were full-time, and now that figure is 29%.
“Most workers are realizing that the only person that really cares about you is yourself, and the best way to have good income security is to have a diversified source of income,” says Kasriel. Almost two-thirds of freelancers think perceptions around freelancing have become more positive.
Nonetheless, freelancers and platform-wedded gig workers alike face similar obstacles while eschewing traditional full-time work: unpredictable income and no benefits. As a result, freelancers tend to save less and are less educated about their finances than their traditionally employed counterparts, the FIA survey found. And rather than saving for retirement, full-time freelancers are socking money away in case of emergencies or gaps in work. It’s no wonder then, that 63% of freelancers reported dipping into their savings accounts every month; many say that income is too unpredictable to consistently save.
Yet gig workers feel similarly about their own financial situations. So without employer-backed benefits, perception–and the semantics that shape them–may be the most significant differentiator between freelancers and gig workers.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Suzan Bond’s preferred term to “freelancer” as “independent worker,” when it is in fact “solopreneur.”