Are we living in a Freelance Economy?

Are we living in a Freelance Economy?

People are working in new and different ways in modern economies. We can see the rise of self-employed work in the UK and elsewhere, and especially with highly skilled professionals. But how big is this trend? And how do we understand what is happening?Many people find it difficult to define the nature of their work using traditional categories. A large number of workers are not employees of big or small firms, or the public sector, but yet they work for them. They are neither employees nor employers. They call themselves different things, such as freelancers, contractors, consultants, independent professionals, commissioned artist, etc.

What they have in common is that they are highly skilled self-employed individuals who work for themselves but do not employ others.Many of them operate in some of the so-called creative and digital industries, working as journalists, designers, ICT specialists and consultants. However, their contribution is not limited to those industries, and it is much more pervasive throughout the economy.

According to a recent project funded by PCG (a) (Professional Contractors Group) and EFIP (European Forum of Independent Professionals),high skilled self-employed workers have been the fastest growing group in the EU labour market in the last decade. They increased by 45% in the EU over the period 2004-2013, and even faster in the UK (63%).

Some observers point out that periods of recessions are often associated with an increase in self-employed work, which is partially compensating for the people who actually lost their job due to the crisis. Others think that the economic crisis alone cannot explain such a prolonged growth of free spirits, and that the rise of independent professionals is revealing a more pervasive change in modern economies. Self-employment may not be just a legal status. It may reflect a distinct philosophy or workers, who are rejecting the traditional hierarchical structure of work, and adopting a more horizontal approach based on their skills and competences.

How can we know more about these self-employed workers, and especially those working in the creative and digital industries in the UK? The Labour Force Survey (LFS) (b) has a specific series of questions on self-employed work, and could provide some interesting statistics.

First of all, it shows that there arecurrently 1.7 million highly skilled professionals working in the UK. If we look at the creative and digital industries (as defined by the DCMS), we find that there are around 426,000 self-employed workers in one of these industries in the UK, representing one fourth of the total number of self-employed workers.

Some further preliminary analysis using the LFS show that on average, self-employed professionals in the creative industries are quite young, with an average age of 44, and that around two thirds of them are males. Around 27% of them are working in London (central, inner and outer), and 15.5% are working in the South East (including Brighton), which shows the largest concentration of self-employed workers in these industries after London.Their home is still the most important place of work; 38% of them work from home, 40% work in different places with their home as a base, and 22% work somewhere else.

Some people think that working as a freelancer or consultant could be a secondary job, or just an extra source of income for a considerable number of people. Our estimates on the LBF data seem to contradict this view. For over 95% of these people, their self-employed activity represents their main job.

Finally, they work hard, on average 44.44 hours per week, and many of them keep their skills updated over time. About 26% of them have engaged in some learning activities in the past 3 months.

These figures are publicly available, and much more could be potentially obtained from LBF and other official sources of data. However, despite this apparent abundance of data, the role of UK’s independent professionals is still largely understudied, and many questions about their work and life remain unanswered, such as:Why do they choose to work this way? How do they cope with uncertainty and risk? Do they contribute to economic growth? How does this type of work affect their wellbeing? Do they need help or support from the government?

With the Fuse 2 project we would like to shade some light on this virtually invisible category of workers.We need your help to collect robust evidence on what you do, how you work, your main strengths and challenges. Brighton & Hove’s Creative, Digital, and IT sectors offer an ideal context for this type of research and we believe that, as happened with the formerFuse project, Brighton couldbenefit a lot in terms of visibility and profile, and, at the same time, teach a lesson to the entire country.


(b)Source: Quarterly Labour Force Survey, October – December, 2013
(c)According to the method of analysis developed at Kingston University.

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