By Anthony Hussenot
Today, freelancers represent 35% of the United States workforce. In the European Union, the rate is 16.1%. Both figures demonstrate the same global trend: from creative entrepreneurs to those paid by the task, freelancing is on the rise worldwide.
That’s because of the “gig economy”, as it is sometimes called, is a Janus-faced – and relentlessly evolving – phenomenon. Freelancing is often portrayed as liberating, empowering, and even glamorous, but the reality is far more complex.
In OECD countries, studies show that these individuals work chiefly in the service sector(50% of men and 70% of women). The remainder are everything from online assistants to architects, designers and photographers.
From the creative class to the precariat
A 2017 study found that the majority of freelancers in OECD countries are “slashers”, meaning that their contract work supplements another part-time or full-time position.
These additional earnings can vary considerably. Those who spend a few hours a month editing instruction manuals from home may earn a few hundred euros a month. Freelance occupational therapists may pull in ten times that working full-time in this growing industry.
Perhaps the most glamorous face of freelancing is the so-called creative class, an agile, connected, highly educated and globalised category of workers that specialise in communications, media, design, art and tech, among others sectors.
They are architects, web designers, bloggers, consultants and the like, whose job it is to stay on top of trends. The most cutting-edge among them end up playing the role of social “influencers”.
In London, this group has been partially responsible for what the economist Douglas McWilliams has dubbed the “flat-white economy”, a flourishing, coffee-fuelled market based on creativity, which combines innovative approaches to business and lifestyle.
Such hipsters, who are also referred to as “proficians”, may be relatively successful in their self-employment, with numerous gigs and a wide portfolio of clients. For McWilliams, they just might represent the future of British prosperity.
Also working hard, though in a much less exalted fashion, are the “precarians”. These task-tacklers work long hours carrying our repetitive tasks, often for a single online platform like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Most of their gigs do not require a high level of expertise and creativity, and are thus easily interchangeable.
Job security is not assured for these online helpers, and though they likely work for a single company, as employees do, benefits are almost certainly nonexistent.
Between the creative class and those struggling to juggle enough gigs to get by, there are plenty of in-betweeners: bloggers driven by their passion to write but struggling to earn a decent living; online assistants satisfied with their jobs who had previously faced unemployment; students earning a few extra euros by working a handful of hours a week as graphic designers.
Freelancers constitute a diverse population of workers – their educational backgrounds, motivations, ambitions, needs, and willingness to work differ from one worker to the next, and it is accordingly difficult for commentators to accurately represent their diversity without resorting to caricature.
The search for freedom…and an income
Freelancing is increasingly a choice that people make in order to escape the 9-to-5 workday.
Many freelancers, whatever their job, may have originally opted for this employment model because it offers (or seemed to offer) freedom – the freedom to work anytime and, in some cases, anywhere. Only 37% of current US freelancers say they resort to gig work out of necessity; in 2014, that figure was higher, at 47%.
Of course, this is not the end of the salariat. Full-time, company-based work is still the standard for employment in most Western countries, as it is in Russia.
Nevertheless, with the rise of telecommuting and automation and the unlimited potential of crowdsourcing, it stands to reason that more and more firms will begin running, and even growing, their businesses with considerably fewer employees.
This does not necessarily mean an increase in unemployment. Instead, it likely means more freelancers, who will form and reform around various projects in constant and evolving networks.
The rise of freelancing may be a key visible indicator of the future of work, notably in terms of collaboration practices. Freelancers are already facilitating the co-management of projects. Soon enough, they will also be producing, communicating, and collaborating with firms, customers, and with society at large.
Given that they are not a homogeneous class of workers, managing these new managers will not be simple. Currently, there is not a single social protection system that cleanly corresponds to all freelancers, from house cleaners and taxi drivers to architects and news editors.
How can these individuals group and work together to promote and defend their diverse employment interests? Surely, some ambitious freelancer is on the case right now.
By Anthony Hussenot , Professor in Organization Studies, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis (UNS)