The Secret Lives of Freelancers
Busting the myths of independent work.
With great freedom comes great misunderstanding. So many of the popular myths about freelancing as a career—about our schedules, our occupations, our income, and more—bear little resemblance to our actual daily lives. Here, we’ll bust some of these misconceptions with research. Let’s begin with the very bad idea that freelancing is a euphemism for part-time work or unemployment.
Freelancing is a full-time job
Successful, full-time freelancers know that while they enjoy more flexibility than their peers working a nine-to-five, it’s not unusual to put in a work week that amounts to way more than 40 hours, and their schedule is often dictated by the demands of specific clients and projects.
Full-time freelancing is a hustle, but it’s one in which you have control over your time and your work, which can be just as lucrative, if not more, than working for someone else. Technology and changes in the economy have created more freelancers than ever before.
It’s just so powerful of an internal feeling to know that you’ve created your own job and your own business.
Many of those freelancers wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s scary because you don’t have someone taking care of your taxes for you or paying you for vacation,” says Keith Hall, president and CEO of the National Association for the Self-Employed. “But when you get to the point where you’ve found your niche, it’s just so powerful of an internal feeling to know that you’ve created your own job and your own business.”
While conventional wisdom holds that freelancing is usually a side gig or something that people do between jobs, our recent survey of “solopreneurs” found just the opposite. Of the more than 1,000 people we surveyed, 85 percent said that they were full-time soloists, and three-quarters said that they’d chosen to go out on their own. Furthermore, four in ten freelancers work more than 40 hours per week, with 10 percent putting in more than 60 hours, according to a recent study by Payoneer.
Intentional, not accidental
What was an unusual way of life is becoming ever more common as people both need to and wish to pursue a more portfolio existence.
Over 60 percent of our respondents said that they planned to remain a business of one, and nearly half said they’d left a traditional job to be an independent worker. “Freelancing is becoming ever more mainstream,” says Alex Stephany, author of The Business of Sharing and founder of Beam, a collaborative platform that crowdfunds employment training for homeless people. “What was an unusual way of life is becoming ever more common as people both need to and wish to pursue a more portfolio existence.”
There are now 56.7 million freelancers in the United States—a full third of the workforce, according to an October study by Freelancers Union and Upwork, an increase of 3.7 million in the past five years. This uptick reflects changing attitudes toward freelancing, by both freelancers themselves and the companies who increasingly rely on them.
Beyond the employer-employee contract
“Companies began ramping up their use of freelancers during the Great Recession–when they had to pare down their workforce and couldn’t commit to rehiring,” says Leon Spencer, a spokesman for Freelancer.com.
That proved the business case for hiring freelancers, just as companies were allowing more telecommuting and getting more comfortable working with remote employees–whether they’re working on staff or via a contract. “Over time, they’ve seen the benefits of using contract workers, and they’re willing to do it more,” Spencer says. “It’s not only become normal, but also more desirable to use freelancers.”
There’s a shift in mindset from workers as well, just as a growing number of platforms makes it easier to connect with employers looking to hire them for freelance work–and to collect payment for that work. In September, both Fiverr and Upwork filed for IPOs, illustrating that growing business model for such platforms. Nearly two-thirds of freelancers told Freelancers Union that they found work online, up from 42 percent in 2014.
Such platforms also allow aspiring freelancers to test the waters. “We see many people start by doing a job or two, and they start doing more jobs over time,” Spencer says. “In many cases, we’ve had users tell us that they realize it’s going to be better for them financially if they just freelance full-time.”
The juggling act of flying solo
Freelancers aren’t spending all of their time using the specialized skills for which they’re hired. When you’re a freelancer, you’re in charge of all every part of the business: You’re the benefits department, the legal department and the accounting team. If you can’t handle it yourself, you can find and pay a vendor to do it for you.
Taking care of your own taxes, in particular, can be a steep learning curve for freelancers. When you don’t have a company taking out your taxes as you earn your money, you’re responsible for setting aside the cash and making quarterly payments throughout the year.
Whether they’re working for others or working for themselves, freelancers are increasingly making enough money to make their solo work a viable, full-time career. The average full-time freelancer takes home $69,000 per year, and 20 percent of freelancers make six-figure, a 70 percent increase since 2011.