“Freelancing in America” Report, 2019

It’s time for the annual “Freelancing in America” survey from the Freelancers Union*! [2] As in previous years, this is a survey of 6,001 (why not 6,000?) workers. Anyone who report any kind of temporary employment, including moonlighting, is counted as a “freelancer” in this survey. Notably, 28% report that they are full time freelancers.

I have criticized earlier iterations of this survey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), and most of my earlier points apply to this year’s study.

This study estimates there are 50 million freelancer workers in the US (by their expansive definition of “freelancer”), which is up slightly from 2018, and roughly the same as 2017. Similarly, the percentage of “full time” freelancers remains unchanged. Regardless of the headlines, this study shows freelancing is not growing.

I think it is important to view these numbers in the context of the historically high employment rates in the US in the past several years. There have been plenty of opportunities for employment conventional and freelance. In an economic downturn, we can expect the number of “involuntary” freelancers to increase dramatically.

Many of the other findings document the work life of freelancers. Many freelancers work remotely, especially technical and media workers. This location flexibility is desirable for workers, and one of the reasons people choose to freelance.

The report finds median hourly pay of $20 over all, $28 for skilled workers. This is shockingly low, especially when this has to cover overheads, insurance, etc., and even more because most freelancers are not full time.

The survey notes that, even in this hot job market, Freelancers feel insecure, and many are preparing for a future downturn. Like all workers in the US, Freelancers have trouble getting health insurance and have troubles with debt and lack of savings.

For the first time this year, many of the issues raised reflect the reality that a freelancer is operating a small business. A proportion of their time is not billable, and they desire more education and training for the skills needed to operate such a business.

On that last point, I certainly agree. For several years, I have been trying to figure out how such training—and, indeed, awareness of freelance careers—might be introduced in local high schools. Introducing anything to high schools is difficult. Sigh.


Nit Pick: The survey makes the irritating claim that Freelancing amounts to 5% of the GDP (basically estimating the total wages of “freelancers”), which they then compare to “Construction” or “Transportation”. Look, “Freelancing” is a type of employment contract (actually, multiple types), not an “industry”. For that matter, some freelancers work in construction, etc. This is a pointless and misleading number.


The bottom line is, according to this survey, Freelancing has not grown in the past three years. Freelancers say that they like Freelancing, and choose to do it. However, in many sectors, especially media and entertainment, Freelancing seems to be the only option available for workers. And the Freelancing life may be flexible, but the pay is shockingly low, and the future uncertain. In this good economy, work is plentiful, but that can and will change.

This is a distinctly mixed picture, and remember that we are in a moment of peak employment. The next downturn will see gig workers rapidly losing hours and pay, much faster than conventional workers.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The Freelancing In America study shows that the U.S. independent workforce is a political force to be reckoned with, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/03/the-freelancing-in-america-study-shows-that-the-u-s-independent-workforce-is-a-political-force-to-be-reckoned-with/
  2. Upwork and The Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America : A comprehensive study of the freelance workforce. 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/resources/freelancing-in-america/

 

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

 

Freelancers Moving Back Home? A “Brain Gain” For Flyover States?

In the past, I have noted the potential for coworking spaces outside major cities and generally in what the US calls “the flyover states”, outside the dominant cultural centers on the coasts.

This month there have been a flurry of articles about a “brain gain”, reporting that people are moving to out of the way places, including small towns [1, 2].  This counters the dominating narrative that all the kids leave for the big city, and that small towns are dying.

OK, there is some hype here.  A handful of people moving into a small town is a big deal for that town, but it’s just a trickle compared to the flood pouring into NYC, LA, and the Sun Belt.  Plus, it never was the case that everybody was leaving, or even all the “best”.  So, it never was quite the way Girls portrayed it.

(And, knowing local Chamber of Commerce folks, I know that there is some motivated storytelling going on.)

But overall, this is plausible and even a good thing.

In the “Future of Work”, many workers can work from anywhere, so long as there is decent connectivity.  And, as I have pointed out, depending on how you want to live, the standard of living can be way better outside a metropolitan area.

Earlier I discussed a recent survey of Freelancers in NYC, and pointed out that the survey focused on Freelance workers who live in NYC.  The survey implicitly assumed that these workers also work in NYC, which, of course most do.   But many of them probably have remote gigs and they probably collaborate (and compete) with Freelancers who live elsewhere and work in NYC.  These variations on life and work were not really explored by that survey, which aimed to boost living the La Vida Giggada in NYC.

The fact is, if you are successful, you can move out of the city and keep working.

And when you do, you might well want to have a local coworking space in your new location.  It will be filled with other “freelancers in flyover land”.

So yeah. It’s not just me.  It’s a real thing. I know dozens of people who either never moved to the big city or came back to make a good life.


  1. Sara Millhouse, Brain Gain: Professionals Find Niche in Rural Upper Midwest, in The Daily Yonder: Keep It Rural. 2018. https://www.dailyyonder.com/brain-gain-professionals-find-niche-rural-upper-midwest/2018/05/30/25657/
  2. Sarah Smarsh, Something Special Is Happening in Rural America, in New York Times. 2019: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/opinion/rural-america.html

 

Report on Freelancing in NYC 2019

The Freelancers Union* has released a new survey of “Freelancing in New York City” [2].

The headline number is that 34% of workers in NYC “is freelancing”.  Wow!  (That would be over a million workers.)  The study finds that in “media and entertainment” 61% of workers have freelanced in the past year.

The report touts the Big Apple as an especially favorable environment for freelancers, for the same reason as it is favorable for all workers (opportunity, professional networking, etc.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, this is a web survey, which means that it is pretty difficult to assess how representative it might be.  I tend to be skeptical of the reported margins of error, given the format of the survey.  Granted, the target group of the survey is comparatively likely to be reached and sampled by this methodology, but who knows?

This study surveyed 5,000 residents in NYC who work in the greater NYC metro area. Within this NYC worker population, the study looked at those who freelance (N=1728) and media and entertainment workers who freelance (N=432). The study was fielded from March 22, 2019 to April 18, 2019. Margin of error for each audience group are as follows: NYC Workers Overall: ±1.3% at the 95% level of confidence. NYC Freelancers: ±2.3%, NYC Non-freelancers ±1.7%, Media & Entertainment freelancers ±4.7” (From [2])

A more important point is that the definition of “freelancer” seems to be “anyone who reports working freelance at any time during the year”.  This includes people who work exclusively or mainly as independent contractors, but also moonlighters who have a conventional job.  As far as I can tell, the definition of a gig is up to the respondent, and one gig of as little as a few hours might be counted as “freelancing” for this study.  In other studies from this group, the workers who could be considered primarily freelancing are considerably fewer than the most inclusive definition, so the headline about “one third of workers” is misleading.

Nevertheless, the findings about the “media and entertainment” sector are plausible.  These industries have always been filled by part time and independent workers, so in this sense nothing has changed in this supposedly “new” gig economy.

The survey found that the responding freelancers are worried about their irregular work and income, and also about late or non-payment. If these workers can’t get enough work in this economy, then there certainly should be very real concern for what will happen in the next downturn.

One interest point the report emphasizes is that many freelancers indicate that the choose to freelance.  (This is a pretty important ideological point for the FU.)  But, if two thirds of “media and entertainment” workers are freelancers, it sounds like there isn’t all that much choice about it—you freelance or you don’t work.  Perhaps the emphasis on how much freelancers prefer freelancing is a bit of cognitive dissonance, putting forward the positives for what must be done out of necessity.  Or perhaps contemporary freelancing is a “better way” to do what desperate screenwriters have always done.

What does this survey mean to the rest of us, who are not in NYC?   In other parts of the world, I bet the freelance life is pretty similar, if not as trendy as the Big Apple.

The sixty four million dollar question is whether you need to actually live in NYC, or not to succeed.  Freelancing or not, NYC has huge opportunities, but you’ll have to scramble to make the most of them.  Perhaps freelancing is particularly suited to this scramble, in any case it certainly is the way many workers live.

Lots of other surveys show that many freelancers work remotely, which means that it should be possible, in principle, to participate in the NYC markets while living back home.  So why move to the city?

I’ll note that this survey apparently doesn’t sample workers who live elsewhere but “work in NYC”.  I suspect there are a fair number of them, and that’s probably a bigger story than whether they are freelancers or not.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The first Freelancing in NYC study shows that 1 in 3 NYC workers is freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/09/10/freelancing-in-nyc-2019/
  2. Freelancers Union, Upwork, and New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Freelancing in New York City 2019. Freelancers Union, New York, 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/documents/36/Freelancing_in_New_York_Report_2019.pdf

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

Alton on The Future of The Gig Economy

In a recent blog post, Gary Alton raises the 64 million dollar question:  “Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay?” [1].

First, his title agrees with my own conclusion that the Internet enabled the gig economy, but did not and does not determine its course.  The gig economy (however you define it) is one of many experiments the ubiquitous internet has made possible.

Writing from the point of view of tech workers, Alton summarizes the by now familiar advantages and disadvantages of the freelance economy.  For workers, flexibility, but little security.  For businesses, cheap, easily replaceable labor.

The same blog had a separate article with yet another potential disadvantage of gig workers: “Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy” [2].  Anna Johansson points out that all these freelancer who work remotely are generally exposed to security breaches, which is kind of a problem.

She lists five obvious challenges, though they all stem from working off site, via multiple networks including public access points.  Freelancers value “flexibility” and “convenience”, but these are anathema to network security, which needs rigorous and often annoying control.

Generally speaking, the more important the work, the more security you need to protect it.  So this means that remote workers, including freelancers, either cannot do critical work, or must use extraordinary technical security to protect the business interests.

If it were me, I wouldn’t let anyone do anything important remotely.  I want to keep my data and IP inside my fortress, and I mean a physical not a virtual fortress.

So maybe gig workers will be limited to low risk work, which is also low pay work.  That’s not so good.


On Alton’s second point, “Is It Here to Stay?”, I will repeat what I have said before.  The current gig economy has only existed in the upswing of the recovery from 2009.  We haven’t seen a major recession yet (though the “media” industry seems to be contracting every year somehow).

One of the entire points of gig work is that it is short term and contingent.  The next big downturn will pressure businesses to shed costs and workers.  Gig workers will be hit first and will be hit instantly.  In fact, you don’t need to even fire a gig worker, you just let out fewer short term contracts.

Essentially, the gig economy will make the next recession see a rapid flash crash of employment, in the form of a severe drought of gigs and probably even lower pay for gig workers.

This will have a knock on effect on the coworking industry.  A widespread recession in freelance gigs will cause many workers to drop out of their coworking spaces, and many workspaces will crash.

As goes the freelance economy, so goes the coworking industry.

By the way, my own guess is that WeWork will implode under a mountain of debt, while smaller, more locally grounded operations may survive.

So:  is it here to stay?  Maybe.  But neither gig working nor coworking are going to look so great after the next recession.


  1. Larry Alton, Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay? , in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/tech-opened-the-door-to-the-gig-economy
  2. Anna Johansson, 5 Reasons Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/workers-are-driving-network-security-professionals-crazy

Many Freelance Software Developers Eschew Coworking Spaces?

Tallie Gabriel reports this month that a large fraction of freelance workers are “software developers” [1].  She is referring to a survey by Squarespace indicates that 29% of freelancers develop software, and this fraction may grow [2].

The survey indicates that these workers are a bit older (and therefore more experienced) than freelancers overall and more likely to have kids.  They are reported to be even more predominantly male.

There is, of course, tons of coding work available, and employers are happy to “pay as you go” for many tasks. So it is not very surprising that there is a booming “will code for food” sector.

The survey found that these coders report work less than a full work week, and earning a bit less than conventional employees.  This ability to earn enough with flexible hours is probably a key to the high satisfaction reported.

I’ll point out that this survey should be taken with a bit of care.  The definition of “software development” lumps together a broad range of skills and tasks, and the pay and opportunities vary quite a bit within this range. The needs of employers will continue to evolve, so past performance is definitely not a prediction of future success.

As a (retired) software engineer, I’m not overly surprised by these findings.

A lot of coding has always been done independently (at home, at night, down in the basement of the building next door (in the case of Mosaic), etc.), and a lot of coders essentially go from short term project to short term project, even in conventional organizations.  So working freelance fits the work practices of many “coders”,

The survey also notes that the freelance developers are generally enthusiastic about and participate in open source software projects.  This makes tons of sense, too, in that participation in OSS is pretty much a freelance activity.  If you like coding enough to donate your time to open sourcing, you’ll be even happier doing something similar for pay.

Gabriel’s article discusses the question of “learning as you go”, or at least trying to.  I.e., bidding on a contract that requires technical skills that you do not quite have, with the idea of figuring it out on the job.  As she says, this can get a freelancer in a lot of trouble, with missed deadlines, swollen time commitments, and customer dissatisfaction.

This problem is quite familiar to anyone in the field (I mean, who hasn’t taken an assignment that required new skills?) and especially to anyone who has had to recruit and lead software teams.  It is unusual to find people with exactly the skills needed for a new project, and such paragons are hard to get and probably expensive.  But on the other hand, taking a chance on a rookie is a risk, and teaching people on the job can be very costly (especially if you are tying up other skilled workers supervising the work of others).

Glancing at the survey report, I was struck by the list of skills and roles of the freelance developers.  Specifically, I was struck by what isn’t in the list.  Things like documentation, testing, software maintenance, configuration management, and, most of all “team leader”.

Now, in part this reflects the particular jargon used in the survey, which lumps some of the functions into categories such as “back end” or “full stack” or “product manager”.  But still, the freelance roles are really concentrated in the area of pushing out new products quickly, not on supporting products already in use—which I would say is what software work is mainly about.

The Subspace survey reports that workers in their sample really hates the social overhead of organized work (meetings, tasks other than coding, dealing with other people), and are “less motivated by company culture and more motivated by remote work flexibility”.  In other words, “I just want to code, I don’t want to bother with the rest of the business.”

That’s fine and good, but my experience suggests that this isn’t necessarily the best way to do software, even if some programmers prefer it.

The short term, project oriented commitment of freelancers that means that there is little opportunity to develop (and be rewarded for) “institutional knowledge” and memory.  (And, by the way, it can also mean that they don’t understand the big picture, which can lead to building totally useless software, i.e., solving the wrong problem.)

Beyond just plain experience (“been there, done that”), senior software people are valuable holders of knowledge about things like “why we did it that way” and “how that obscure module actually works” and “how we figured out that problem”.  No matter how good you might be, there is no substitute for this kind of experience.

In fact, I suspect that some freelancers are actually semi-permanent contractors, hired on multiple contracts precisely because they have this kind of knowledge.  And in such a case, freelancing basically amounts to a preference for one kind of employment relationship over another.

Possibly most important, short term deliverable-focused freelance coding makes it challenging to assemble and maintain development teams.  Software is really, really complex, and good software is generally a team effort.  My personal rule of thumb was and is that I might be the smartest programmer in the room (maybe), but I’m never smarter than the union of everybody in the room.

Some of my proudest achievements in software development involved fostering a great team.  This is a difficult challenge (programmers are notoriously egotistical, opinionated, and, shall we say, “boisterous”), and it is even more difficult if some or all of the team are short term contractors with limited commitment to the team per se–and never in the office.  I personally wouldn’t be totally happy leading a software project relying on freelance workers.

This last point raises the question of the potential value of coworking for these freelancers. I can see reasons why freelance programmers would benefit from a coworking space.  My impression is that in some cases a software project might be executed by a team of freelancers who work together (at least some of the time) in a coworking work space.  Coworkers might find work through community connections, and especially, might connect with a successful development team of local coworkers. A coworking community would also be extremely helpful for building such a team, and would also be an opportunity to successfully learn new skills.

But the survey data seems to indicate that few of these freelance software developers (~15%) mainly work in coworking space, and prefer small projects on which they work alone. Taking this survey at face value, there is clearly a large cohort of people who like coding alone, and are very satisfied to get reasonable pay for relatively small and time limited projects.  This group seems to have little interest or use for coworking space or coworking community.

I guess this should be filed under “coworking is not for everyone”.


  1. Tallie Gabriel, What most people don’t know about one-third of the freelance population, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/08/07/what-most-people-dont-know-about-one-third-of-the-freelance-population/
  2. Subspace, The Rise of the Contract Coder: A Report on the State of Freelance Software Development. 2019. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/8ea6d-riseofthecontractcoder2019subspace.pdf