U.S. politicians recently took the first step toward nationalizing California’s AB 5 legislation. If ratified, American businesses, and the freelancers they work with, will face new restrictions that could harm, rather than help, both parties. Politicians may have their intentions in the right place, but it’s clear—at least to the freelancer community—that they haven’t done their homework.
Frustrated by being misunderstood, I decided to conduct my own research to determine what my fellow freelancers need. First, I used a popular search engine optimization tool to perform keyword research. After downloading a list of the keywords I had uncovered, I then used a crude form of content analysis to sort them into categories based on search intent. Here are the top three freelancer needs the data revealed.
The most pressing need for American freelancers is economic security, a topic that attracts a whopping 455,600 searches per month. That’s 10 times more searches than either of the other two needs on this list. If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising. The current era is characterized by an unprecedented level of economic inequality—a statement that two in three Americans agree with, according to Pew Research Center, yet only low-income Americans feel it should be a top concern of their governments.
The thing is, when you don’t have economic security, it’s on your mind constantly. I say that from personal experience: Before I earned a living wage, I spent my nights and weekends in problem-solving mode. How could I meet my own needs, let alone those of my family? After pulling together what I felt was a reasonable budget, I worked backward to identify a career that would help make ends meet—with the help of my friend Google, of course. I spent months developing new skills, learning how to market myself, and building connections in the community—and, eventually, it paid off.
But just because I’m over that hump doesn’t mean everyone else is. While some freelancers simply want the freedom and variety that comes with being your own boss, many are motivated by circumstances that prevent them from working full-time. Stay-at-home parents and other primary caregivers, university students, retirees without the privilege of a pension, and those who live in remote communities or have limitations due to chronic illness, are just a few examples. Evidenced by the sheer number of monthly searches this topic attracts, these demographics struggle more than other Americans to achieve economic security.
Freelancers in America also need help developing their legal literacy—a topic that came in second, with 45,300 searches per month.
Search terms in this bucket reference the laws freelancers must follow, the licenses they require, the taxes they’re obliged to pay, and the business contracts they opt to sign. This group of keywords also includes questions about the differences between freelancers and employees, contractors, and business owners—demonstrating a lack of clarity around these labels.
We’re all pretty new to this freelancing thing. Unlike employment law, which many Americans of working age have internalized, the laws that govern freelance workers were either created very recently or were originally created to govern other forms of work and are now being reinterpreted and applied to freelance work.
At 34,460 searches per month, the third need identified is that many freelancers desire a solid platform partner. They frequently search for things like the top freelancing platforms to join, the best productivity or invoicing apps for freelancers to download, and online self-employment income tax calculators to use.
What these keywords reveal is that being self-employed isn’t simple. Not only do you need to do the work you’re getting paid to do, but you also have to run a business. As the only person working at your one-person business, you’re responsible for everything from responding to client emails and signing work contracts to creating invoices and collecting payments.
Platform partners such as Contently do a lot of the work for you. I say that from experience because it’s the primary platform I use as a freelance content strategist, editor, and writer. All the nitty-gritty—the client contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and payments for services rendered—is taken care of behind the scenes, allowing me to focus on what I do best. As a result, I’m able to maximize my billable hours and minimize the rest.
Key takeaways for American legislators
Google search data can be a helpful tool for understanding human needs. When it comes to what freelancers need from their governments, the data reveal three key takeaways for American legislators:
Enable freelancers to meet their basic needs—food, shelter, and healthcare at a minimum.
The United States is one of the richest and most well-developed countries on Earth. There’s no excuse for its citizens to starve, freeze, or be forced into bankruptcy just to stay alive. Before you do anything else, please invest in legislation that ensures every citizen’s safety and well-being.
Help freelancers understand their rights and responsibilities as participants in the gig economy.
Most Americans have internalized employment law, but the gig economy is new territory. If you help freelancers develop legal literacy, they will be much more likely to respect your laws and pay their taxes. So, it’s in your favor to act on this insight. One way forward could be funding nonprofits that provide free legal education.
Strengthen gig-economy platforms that empower citizens to focus on the work, boost their billable hours, and in many cases lift themselves out of poverty.
Platforms make great partners for freelancers—but not all of them were created equal. Develop standards for each industry that ensure gig workers are treated fairly, earn a living wage, and get paid in a reasonable amount of time.
At the end of the day, freelancers want to lead healthy and wealthy lives—just like everyone else in this country. Stop imposing arbitrary limits on them and start supporting them in the pursuit of happiness.
Jes Kirkwood is a freelance writer, content strategist, and managing editor at Contently, where she helps Fortune 500 healthcare and insurance companies build high-performing content programs. In her spare time, she works on her two forthcoming books: The Science Against Comfort: Dying Slowly in America, and The Real Future of Work: How the Gig Economy Will Deliver Human Well-Being at Scale. Follow her work (and her journey) on Twitter and LinkedIn.