Don’t call it a gig economy

If the latest research is to be believed, freelancers will be the majority of the workplace within a decade.

The study showing this trend was co-sponsored by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, so we might take the results with the proverbial grain of salt. But it’s backed up by much of the buzz I’ve heard, from students and younger workers and new moms – if they’re right, 47 percent of millennials are freelancing, and they’re the ones rising up in the workplace.

Freelancing in America” projects freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027, and the freelance workforce grew three times faster than the overall workforce since 2014.

The top concern among freelancers is income predictability, which is (ironically) predictable considering the variable nature of a freelancer’s work. More than 60 percent of full-time freelancers dip into savings on a regular basis, compared to 20 percent of non-freelancers.

Take note, politicians: 72 percent of freelancers would cross political party lines if a candidate supported their interests.

What are those interests?

Health insurance is key. The Affordable Care Act arguably spurred a large number of people to launch into freelancing who could not manage it before, and it is largely supported by freelancers. Like non-freelancers, they are concerned about paying off debt, including student loans, and saving for retirement. They are entrepreneurs, and have many of the same concerns as those creating brick-and-mortar businesses. But they’re more concerned about income predictability and health care than taxes.

And they need ongoing education. More than half the U.S. workforce is not confident the work they do today will exist in 20 years. But freelancers are far more likely to be prepared for automation or technology to take over their jobs; more than half of the freelancers had undergone re-skilling training in the last six months, compared to less than one-third of non-freelancers.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel said freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize in the future, calling it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

From what I’ve seen among the students I’ve met so far? They aren’t necessarily looking for That First Job anymore. They want to work for themselves. They want to make a living and support their families, but they are increasingly unwilling to give up their autonomy for it.

In journalism, it’s a tough sell to get them interested in applying for a newspaper. There’s one small-town paper I know that is paying $10 an hour. Another pays $12 – to its long-term veterans. Try selling that to an upcoming grad with $30,000 in student loans. They literally cannot take these jobs. If the workforce doesn’t keep up with the needs of the workers, the workers will go out on their own.

A few other statistics:

• Freelancers contribute $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy per year – a staggering 30 percent increase over last year.

• Freelancers average 4.5 clients per month, and 63 percent believe a diverse portfolio of clients is preferable to one employer – a 10-point increase since last year.

• To the shock of no one, most work is found online – 71 percent.

• More and more of them are going full-time, with dropping rates of part-time and “moonlight” freelancers as the numbers of full-timers grow.

• Two-thirds of freelancers began freelancing by choice, not by a necessity such as being laid off.

And that bit about calling it a “gig economy”? I remember when I first began working by remote for a newspaper, and this was a brand new idea: a reporter who operated in the field! No newsroom, just laptop and cell phone! They called us “backpack journalists,” which I really hated. It felt infantilizing, like we were kids play-acting at being journalists. I haven’t carried a backpack since college. I used the term “remote reporter,” which wasn’t great, but was a better description than “backpack.” Words matter, names matter, and we who make our living with words should know that better than anyone.

Freelancers prefer the phrase “freelance economy” five times over those who didn’t mind “gig economy.” Gigs are for garage bands. Freelancers are at work.

The full results deck is available here.

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