“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.

 

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.

Freelancing in America Report 2018

The annual “Freelancing in America” report was released October 31 [2].

In past years, I have criticized this report for some sloppy and perhaps misleading claims.  Let’s have a look at this edition.

First of all, the report is base on “An online survey of 6,001 U.S. adults who have done paid work in the past 12 months” [1].  This is an impressive sample, and includes “non Freelancers”.  It’s always hard to be sure of biases in online surveys—obviously not everyone can be reached this way or will participate.  In this case, there will surely be a skew toward including younger, digitally active workers, for instance.  But still, this is a pretty big sample, so that’s good.

One of the headline numbers is that the total number of “freelance” workers held steady compared to 2017, at about 50 million.  This was reported as “3.7 million more”, but that number is growth since the first report in 2014.  There was actually a slight decrease in the number of Freelancers between 2017 and 2018.

In fact, throughout the report, there is very little change from 2017.  But to create an illusion of growth, the base of comparison was shifted to the 2014 survey.  Sigh.

As noted in earlier discussions, this report consistently uses a very expansive and debatable definition of “freelancing”.  They include pretty much anyone who did any part time work at all, from the smallest hobby up to full time a independent business. If you focus on “close to full time” freelancers, there are about half as many as the headline number.  This means that roughly 10% of the US workforce is (more or mostly less) earning a living  freelancing.  That’s quite a few, but less exciting than some of the headlines imply and not necessarily a big change from 50 years ago.

I understand why the Freelancers Union wants to spread the net widely, I’m a ‘one big union’ guy myself.  But these workers really are such a diverse lot it’s questionable whether they should be talked about as if they are one group.

Another headline number is that 61% of freelancers do so by choice, as opposed to necessity.   This percentage has risen over the last few years, suggesting that freelancing really is preferred by many workers, and that number may be growing.  This growth may also reflect better employment opportunities, which has the side effect of reducing the number of involuntary freelancers (because they have found conventional employment).

The survey found that the more freelancers reported full time employment (defined as 35 hours per week or more, I think), and reported incomes of freelancers held steady over the year.  Every survey has shown that the majority of freelancers work less than full time, and, hardly surprisingly, earn less than $75K.  (As I have said before, statistics about freelance “income” need to be taken carefully, because independent contractors have to cover overhead and benefits, so income can’t be simply be compared with wages.)

The survey also reports on the completely unshocking fact that Freelances find that upgrading skills is a good idea, though training is awfully expensive when you are paying your own way.

The survey finds that, as always, autonomy is one of the named benefits of Freelancing, including the ability to make time for family.  And, as always, Freelancing has its own challenges, including unpredictable work and income, and isolation.  Freelancers also face the same anxieties as all workers about health insurance, retirement savings, and low pay. But I guess even though work still sucks, but at least you are working for yourself in your own interest and on your own terms.

A large number of Freelancers report that they make more money Freelancing than in previous conventional employment.  This is an interesting finding, though I still wonder how earnings are being counted.  For instance, is this a higher hourly rate, or a difference in the hours worked?  And perhaps the causation runs the other way—underpaid workers are more likely to jump to Freelancing because of low pay, not because Freelancing pays well.

This study replicates the frequently reports that most Freelancers would not take a conventional job if offered.  This is a solid sign that Freelancers are satisfied, and suggests that pay and conditions must be at least competitive.  I have to point out that this also shows just how sucky US employers seem to treat workers.  I mean, with all the stress and overhead of freelancing, it shouldn’t be that hard to be a nicer alternative.  You know, treat people with respect, pay decently, take care of important needs.  Stuff like that.


Overall, when you look at the actual data the picture is sobering.  The number of Freelancers has held steady, which may reflect a better overall job market for all kinds of employment.  Freelancers still face uncertainty, and many work only a few hours for very little pay.

Indeed, there may be a trend emerging where Freelancing is diverging into a top tier of high paid independent workers (e.g., in-demand technical workers), and a lower tier of low paid contingent workers (e.g., the lumpen proletariat of content generators). This pattern has certainly existed for a long time int he temp economy, so it may not be a surprise if the gig economy simply replicates the gig sector of the old economy.

If this truly is a trend, then it will be very important not to lump all freelance and independent workers into one conceptual heap.  Highly skilled independent contractors with high incomes have different needs and opportunities from low skill, contingent workers.  Above all, it is a mistake to blithely claim that freelancing is a viable path to a decent living for all workers—it isn’t, any more that conventional employment is.

The Freelancers Union has a key role to play here, especially in helping less secure and lower paid workers build a decent life.  Solidarity of all independent workers is a good thing, and to date the FU has done a decent job of fighting for everyone.  (#FreelanceIsn’tFree, insurance, etc.)

However, I would like to see future reports take a closer look at the differences among Freelancers who are full time, part time, and in different pay tiers.  There are many common concerns, for sure.  But there may be some important issues lost in the aggregate.  (Just as a for example, part time working mothers will have important challenges finding affordable child care, not to mention enough hours in the day.)

Disclosure:  I am a long time member of the Freelancers Union.


  1. Freelancers Union and UpWork, Freelancing in America: 2018: An independent, annual study commissioned by Freelancers Union & Upwork Freelancers Union, 2018. https://www.slideshare.net/upwork/freelancing-in-america-2018-120288770/1
  2. Caitlin Pearce, Freelancing in America 2018, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/10/31/freelancing-in-america-2018/