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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. There Is More Than One Type Of Freelancer
  3. Technology Makes The World Your Office
  4. How Does Demographics Play Into The Freelance Trend?
  5. The Economy's Impact On The Freelance Market
  6. The Possibilities Of Lifestyle Design
  7. A Look Ahead
  8. Infographic #1
  9. Summary
  10. Infographic #2



I wake up each morning around 6 and have a quick peek at my emails, checking to see whether any work has come in from clients around the world, heading to the kitchen to grab a glass of milk. As soon as the baby goes down for his first nap, my work day begins in earnest. I’m still in my pajamas by the way. I’m lucky – this is the life of a freelancer But by definition, one freelancer’s day has the potential to vary wildly from another’s. Pam Newman, the digital marketing expert, begins her day a little later, easing into things because she knows that she is not a morning person. Being a freelancer allows her to adapt her workload to her night owl tendencies. She spends the mornings doing low impact work, saving her most intense work for after 11 am. She is able to schedule workouts in the afternoon, dinner with friends, and then heads home to work late into the evening. Freelancers typically do project or contract based work, foregoing the limits of full-time traditional employment for the flexibility and potentially higher earning potential that a freelance career provides. While some may have been nudged into freelancing by economic downturns, the benefits of freelancing are not to be scoffed at, and many are now choosing to pursue the freelance life.  According to Upwork's Freelancing In America report, thirty-five percent of the American workforce is now defined as freelancers. It is predicted that by 2020, 50 percent of the US workforce will be freelance in some capacity. The trend holds globally, as the number of freelancers worldwide is set to increase according to an Intuit study. This substantial chunk of the economy is bucking the trend of traditional employment in favour of self-employment.  Either pushed or by choice, the trend towards freelancing is growing, and when it comes to highly skilled individuals, freelancing is often the result of an active, considered choice – the choice to work for yourself, to create your own schedule and to earn your worth based directly on the value that you provide. One study found that 86% of freelancers intentionally chose to freelance, while 94% found their freelance work to be a regular and reliable source of income. Almost three-quarters of the freelancers surveyed also reported making the same or more money freelancing than they did when traditionally employed. The Harvard Business Review has coined the term “supertemp” to refer to highly skilled professionals who have chosen to enter “free agent nation”. They report that supertemps like lawyers, CFOs and consultants are rising in number and are set to change the traditional work landscape. These professionals are able to pursue their values of flexibility and autonomy for comparable or better income, leaving behind office politics and endless meetings for independent, meaningful work and interesting lifestyles. What is driving the trend? Why choose freelance work over traditional employment? Before we dig in, let’s have a look at what freelancing really is.


There Is More Than One Type Of Freelancer

Are you a freelancer or an entrepreneur? According to marketing maven and bestselling author Seth Godin, freelancers get paid for their work, perhaps by the hour or per project, but entrepreneurs use money (preferably someone else’s) to build businesses bigger than themselves. Entrepreneurs ideally won’t be using their own labour to fill customer’s needs, and their goal is to eventually sell their business.  However, it seems that the lines between entrepreneur and freelancer are blurring, and various permutations of both have arisen in recent years. Case in point: solopreneurs. These are a mix of freelancers and entrepreneurs; someone who starts their own business yet works in it as well. A newer more specific permutation is the interestingly named “mompreneur”, stay at home mothers who also run small businesses from home, or freelance in their spare time, in between soccer practice and bath time.  For Newman, neither freelancer nor entrepreneur fully encompasses what she does, and she prefers the term “consultant”. Personally, she believes that the term “freelancer” is limiting because, as experienced professionals, “we have so much to offer, we can wear many hats, and can often give a much greater solution than your average employee working in-house or at an agency”.  For Newman, “freelancer” implies that you offer a simple service for a simple fee, whereas it is seldom as straightforward as that. The nature of the role allows freelancers to offer more value, and for Newman, “the fact that we manage our own businesses, don’t claim sick days and don’t have long chats at the water-cooler, means that we have to be the best at what we do to survive. We also have to have enough relevant experience to be able to go on our own with confidence.” Furthermore, if you’re freelancing in one arena, you are not confined to that sphere of work. You can dabble in other areas, or also become a true expert in more than one field. Newman also considers herself an entrepreneur, although she feels that entrepreneurship is more than a vocation – it is a passion that cannot be contained for those who feel the need to push themselves career-wise.  While consulting brings in the bread and butter for Newman, the entrepreneurial projects that she develops on the side will hopefully lay the foundations for her future.  Apart from the flexibility in location and the variety of projects that a freelancer has on offer, there are also different ways that one can structure a freelance career. Not all freelancers are full-time, and some prefer to moonlight or earn some extra cash on the side while retaining their day jobs. There are at least 5 different types of freelancers, according to a national survey of the “new workforce” in America, conducted by the independent research firm Edelman Berland. The 5 types of freelancers defined by the study are:

  1. Independent contractors: traditional freelancers;
  2. Moonlighters: professionals who keep their day jobs but also freelance on the side;
  3. Diversified workers: people who do a mix of traditional and freelance work, they have multiple sources of income;
  4. Temporary workers: People working with a single client or on a single project on a temporary basis; and
  5. Freelance business owners: small business owners, with fewer than 5 employees, who still consider themselves freelancers.  

The graph below illustrates that independent contractors make up the vast percentage of people who identify as freelancers.  

Many of these people are engaged in highly specialised work for which they are well-qualified. Management consultants, lawyers, marketing experts, researchers, and writers have all made the move to freelance. Some entering the workforce have been freelance from the get-go.   What are the drivers of the freelance trend? Technology, generational demographics and economic factors all play a role.   

Technology Makes The World Your Office

Many productivity experts say that you should spend the first hour of your morning on focused proactive work instead of reacting to the emails in your inbox. But this is not always possible when you’re a freelancer. A call from a client can come at any moment, across time zones, and I want to be ready to answer it, because I know that there will be times when I will be offline, focussed on everything but work. There is no easy line to be drawn between work and the rest of life, but I have to strike my own balance, because I do not have an employer to do it for me. There is no 9 to 5. Perhaps I’ll work from midnight to 3am today, and then take the next day off to spend playing outside with my little boy.  The role of technology and the fact that having a laptop and internet connection has made working remotely possible in many industries has facilitated the freelance boom. The barriers to entry for freelancers nowadays are low because you can set up office with nothing more than your smartphone.  According to Wired magazine, technological innovations fuel the freelance economy and “work is undergoing a transformation not seen since the Industrial Revolution.” The ability to work from anywhere is a big drawcard, and Newman lists this as one of her favourite things about being a freelancer. Having control over her time is another. While this is not always easy for a working mother like me, because I am somewhat bound to the whims of nap-time, contractors like Newman are able to optimise their work time. Newman schedules all of her meetings on one day of the week, because she figures that it is “better to have one completely disrupted day than 5 slightly disrupted ones.” Online freelance marketplaces also make it easier for clients and contractors to find each other quickly and some (like Expert 360) provide payment security to both parties, by providing escrow services and help with creating the freelance contract.  A recent Edelman Berland study shows that 65% of freelancers think that technology and the internet has made it easier to find work, while 42% have done online projects.

Amazingly, “31% of freelancers said they can find a gig online in less than 24 hours".  


How Do Demographics Play Into The Freelance Trend?

Do gender and age factor into the freelance economy? In the Atlantic’s Ambition Interview series by Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace, the researchers looked at career trajectory of highly skilled women with advanced degrees whose careers had taken varying paths after they had started families. For these brilliant women, striking the balance between work and family seemed more like walking uneasily on a tightrope, with some women continuing full speed ahead on their career paths, others scaling back, and the rest staying at home altogether.  The “scale backers” are the ones that would benefit most from working in a freelance capacity, because freelancing provides the opportunity to do just as much work as you choose, while still allowing the balance with family life and busy home schedules.  Apart from the difference between men and women, other demographic trends also influence the choice to freelance. Millennials are at least 6% more likely to freelance than people over 35 years old, according to Upwork's Freelancing In America report.   There is a generational divide in terms of how work and careers are viewed. One CSD study (entitled Gen Y And The Gigging Economy) states that: “Whereas the Baby Boomer generation prized the idea of a ‘job for life’ and Generation X accepted that their careers would consist of several jobs for different employers, it seems that today’s Gen Y grads are questioning the value of having a traditional ‘job’ at all.” Rashaad Sujee, a millennial commercial lawyer who has had experience at big multinational firms, has become a contractor, setting up his consulting firm close to home. For Sujee, making the leap while still young was important, because he has seen the nature of “lifers” at law firms (those older attorneys who have been at the same place for their entire careers). Many of Sujee’s colleagues have made a similar decision, preferring to consult outside the confines of a big firm. From meeting with new clients who need direct legal assistance, to consulting for the type of big law firm that he used to work for, the type of work that Sujee is able to attract varies. Big firms, while retaining their structures, are recognising the value of keeping consultants on retainer, allowing them to offer valuable services to clients at a lower cost. The fact that Sujee is not an employee allows him to charge a fair rate for his services, while also allowing the client to on-charge a discounted rate to their eventual customer. This is because they do not carry the cost of employee benefits for contractors like Sujee. The legal field in particular is increasingly facing pressure from the industry to change its traditional billable hour structure. The rise of tech innovations in the legal arena has forced many firms to fundamentally reconsider how they do business. The concomitant rise of the freelance legal consultant may be the answer, at least in terms of value for money. Industry leaders have not failed to notice this. Apart from the rise in hiring freelancers at various levels, people at the top, including c-suite executives, are also choosing to go freelance.  

The Economy’s Impact On The Freelance Market

Economic booms and busts also spur the freelance trend. The fluctuations in the global economy have made freelancing a necessary option for some. For example, the recent recession led to the rise of many people looking for freelance work out of necessity. Nevertheless, many find the freelancing option safer than having to be at the mercy of fluctuating markets and contracting industries.  This is true for Newman, who feels that although economic downturns may be terrible, they also open up the world of opportunities for freelancers. She asks, “Why would you want to be an at-risk employee for an ailing company, when you could be an agile consultant and work on your own terms?” Freelancing is not just for those who can’t find other work. Sujee is an example of this. He gets calls from legal recruiters every few months, wanting to hire him full-time for some or other corporate law firm. But he prefers working for himself, because it allows him the freedom to set up his days in a way that makes them his own. Importantly, it also allows him the discretion to choose clients that meet with his ethics and values, whereas life in a corporate firm rarely facilitates this type of choice. The previously mentioned 2014 study by CSD found that 87% of graduates with first or second class degrees in the UK see freelancing (or “gigging” as it is sometimes referred to in the UK) as a highly lucrative and attractive career option. Many of the respondents in the same survey felt that they could earn as much or even more, by freelancing as opposed to following the traditional career route. But the relationship between freelancing and the economy is symbiotic. While swings in the economy and developments in technology affect freelancing, the rise of freelancing also impacts on the global economy and technology trends. For example, the rise of freelancing has led to the development of new digital contingent workforce solutions aimed purely at freelancers, and has also led to a boom in co-working spaces.


The Possibilities Of Lifestyle Design

Author Tim Ferriss coined the phrase Lifestyle Design, a philosophy that encourages mini-retirements every few years, with short bursts of work in between.  Putting off everything that you really want to do until after age 60 is becoming increasingly unattractive. Freelancing gives people the opportunity to work and travel (or do any number of other things) at the same time. It allows you the freedom to design your own life outside the confines of a corporate culture that obligates you to give most of your days to the office. On designing her own life, Newman muses, “I recently returned from Bali, where a large ex-pat digital community spends its days in co-working spaces, having Skype meetings around the world, collaborating with each other, sharing ideas and shifting the way we do business, one start-up at a time. It completely altered my view on traditional business models. The truth is that if you can make your business digital, you are one of the lucky ones. In this age, there is no reason to be chained to a desk in a dingy office, sharing germs and dreaming of a better life. This is your life, and there is no better time to take control of it.” It may seem ironic, but the use of technology to enable freelancing has actually allowed many freelancers to move to more rural areas to pursue alternate lifestyle choices while still making a profitable living from their chosen profession. According to Fast Company, around 18% of freelancers in the US live in rural areas because they are able “to do market-competitive knowledge work from anywhere.”


A Look Ahead

Freelancing is trending upward, with more and more people seeing the benefits in this flexible, modern way of work and way of life. Research by Edelman Berland shows that the majority of full-time employees who made the move to freelance made more money within a year of switching over.  The Edelman Berland national survey, mentioned throughout this article, provides a fascinating look into freelancing trends. Freelancing is increasingly becoming a viable and respectable career choice, and the possibilities for living a freelance life are just starting to be uncovered.  Here are some more interesting takeaways from the survey


In essence, it is clear that high-skilled workers are increasingly turning to freelancing more out of choice than out of necessity. As the need for agility and a more contingent workforce grows within businesses, the opportunities presented to freelancers are ever increasing. This, coupled with the ability to shape and foster a lifestyle that is highly flexible, entrepreneurial and lucrative, is driving an exponential uptake of freelancing for high-skilled, white-collar workers across the globe.  

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