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How Many Americans Are Freelancing? More Than You Think

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, freelancing, money & life

Though the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics (also known as the jobs report) woefully neglect the new class of freelancers, part-timers, and gig economists, plenty of other organizations have a vested interest in knowing exactly how many Americans are making a living — or even just contributing to their income — by freelancing, working for themselves, or taking on work in addition to their full-time employment. A new report from the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, though, shows that the U.S. government may want to start paying closer attention to how creative entrepreneurs are operating, because a lot more people are currently freelancing than you might expect.

“Freelancing is the new normal — and this survey shows that America’s new workforce is big, crucial, and here to stay,” founder and Executive Director of the Freelancers Union Sara Horowitz explained in the press release. For the purposes of the survey, “freelancers” is defined as “individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, or project- or contract-based work in the past 12 months.”

The survey, which was conducted by the independent research firm Edelman Berland, found that more than 53 million Americans are doing freelance work, or about 34 percent of the workforce. Freelancers also contribute $700 billion to the national economy, says Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance-oDesk, who attributes the surge in freelancing both to a demand and a new ease of access.

“This is just the start: The connected era we live in is liberating our workforce. The barriers to being a freelance professional — finding work, collaborating with clients and getting paid on time — are going away.”

The survey found that there were basically five kinds of individuals who are taking part in this economy movement. From the survey, they are:

  • “Independent Contractors (40% of the independent workforce / 21.1 million professionals) – These are“traditional” freelancers don’t have an employer and instead do freelance, temporary or supplemental work on a project-to-project basis.

  • Moonlighters (27%  / 14.3 million) – Professionals with a primary, traditional job who also moonlight doing freelance work. For example, a corporate-employed web developer who also does projects for non-profits in the evening.
  • Diversified Workers (18% / 9.3 million) – People with multiple sources of income from a mix of traditional employers and freelance work. For example, someone who works the front desk at a dentist’s office 20 hours a week and fills out the rest of his income driving for Uber and doing freelance writing.
  • Temporary Workers (10% / 5.5 million) – Individuals with a single employer, client, job or contract project where their status is temporary. For example, a business strategy consultant working for one startup client on a contract basis for a months-long project.
  • Freelance Business Owners (5% / 2.8 million) – Business owners with between one and five employees who consider themselves both a freelancer and a business owner. For example, a social marketing guru who hires a team of other social marketers to build a small agency, but still identifies as a freelancer.”

The increase of freelancing in American has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years — though without numbers like these, quantifying the actual impact on the economy has been difficult. These figures help clarify what has already been largely apparent: That, whether due to financial necessity or creative curiosity, Americans are diversifying their work, juggling more and different kinds of projects, and more actively pursuing a career path that doesn’t follow the traditional one.

And while it’s easy to worry if an increase in freelancers might lead to a dearth of freelance work, that doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, having more individuals who are providing for themselves the services and benefits which employers traditionally offered — like health care — has made it easier to get in on the ground floor in a more secure, less nervous-making way.

Still, freelance life isn’t without concerns; worries about churning out enough work, staying current and up-to-date on new trends and technology, and remaining connected to the larger community plague workers, and persistent stereotypes (like that freelancing is just a polite way of saying “unemployed”) can make it difficult to remain confident and be taken seriously as an entrepreneur. But numbers like this report can help shake the notion that freelancing is all sweatpants and unpaid bills; for the 1/3 of Americans who take on some kind of extra work, it’s clearly serious business.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.