The Rise of the Freelance Workers

Freelancers made up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2016. Who are they? And why do they freelance?

By Missy Sheehan, Freelancer and Owner of Sheehan Writing & Editing

The U.S. workforce is in a state of flux. While most people think “working” means having a traditional 9-to-5 job, that definition is rapidly changing as more people opt to work as freelancers.

In 2016, a whopping 55 million Americans — that’s 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — earned all or part of their income from freelance work. That’s an increase from 53 million in 2014, according to the Freelancing in America: 2016 study commissioned by the New York-based Freelancers Union and Upwork, an online platform that connects freelancers with businesses.

So who are these freelancers? And why do they freelance?

Bat Mitzvah photo

In general, the term “freelancer” includes those who “perform some kind of supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work to fully or partially support themselves,” (Freelancers Union & Upwork, 2016). Some freelancers, like myself, are writers and editors. Others are marketing consultants, career coaches, web designers, and more.

The reasons for freelancing vary from person to person, but most full-timers do it for flexibility and freedom. Most freelancers (77 percent) agreed that freelancing offers them a good work-life balance (Freelancers Union & Upwork, 2016).

Megan Fisklements, a freelance food research scientist with a Ph.D. in food science, turned to freelancing full time after she quit her 9-to-5 job when she switched coasts in 2015. The flexibility offered by freelancing allows her to formulate new foods and conduct in-depth research for food businesses while using her down time for family labor including child and elder care. “It’s invaluable to have the flexibility at this point,” says Fisklements, who works from her home office in Framingham, Massachusetts. “I love being able to walk downstairs and hug my toddler on my lunch break and also be available to my parents or my in-laws. It’s worth a lot.”

Most freelancers (79 percent) prefer freelancing to a traditional 9-to-5 job. They also are “much more likely to describe themselves as ‘engaged’ in their work than non-freelancers” (Freelancers Union & Upwork, 2016).

For Pamela Krikorian, a freelance graphic designer and creative strategist based in Chicago, quitting her job as a senior designer for a marketing team to freelance full time offered a much-needed change and an opportunity for professional growth. “With 10 years of experience in my field, a growing skillset, and now confidence in myself as a professional designer, I began to feel a desire for new challenges,” she says. “I wanted to learn even more and grow skills in new areas of interest. I also wanted to use my leadership skills more and work on a wider variety of projects with different types of businesses.”

A full-time freelancer since 2016, Krikorian works for clients including the Council of Better Business Bureaus and says she loves being her own boss. “Everything I do directly impacts my business; successes and failures are the result of my actions,” she says. “This is highly motivating to me because it creates a lot of opportunities to learn so much more than I would working for a company, and there is no limit on what I can achieve.”

For part-time freelancers, the chance to earn additional income is often the biggest source of motivation, but passion drives freelance photographer Martin Lerman. He says freelancing allows him to pursue his love for photography without sacrificing the security of his day job. A former staff photographer for the Ashtabula Star Beacon and the Chillicothe Gazette newspapers in Ohio, Lerman works full time in advertising sales for the Advance Ohio media company in Cleveland and dedicates many evenings and weekends to freelance photography. His services include wedding and special event photography, high school senior portraits, and family portraits. He also photographs local sporting events.

Lerman founded his Better Business Bureau-accredited photography business, MSL Photography, in 2008. “I didn’t want to give up on photography,” he says. “My career has shifted a little bit, but freelancing is flexible enough that I can work my regular job, be there for my kids’ softball games, and still do photography.”

The future is certainly bright for freelancers like Lerman, Krikorian, and Fisklements. The rise of the freelance workers shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, businesses are increasing their use of freelancers. “One-third of companies utilized freelancers in 2016. Of these, 55 percent expect to have more freelancers in 2017,” according to a report from Upwork (2017).

These numbers will continue to increase as more people and businesses embrace freelancing as an alternative to the traditional 9-to-5 job.

- Better Business Bureau


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