An Emerging American Workforce Speaks Out: It's Time to Pay Attention

Nearly 54 million men and women are now part of America's independent workforce -- working variously as accountants, computer programmers, translators, designers, health care providers, and more.
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Workplace, Man working on the laptop
Workplace, Man working on the laptop

Nearly 54 million men and women are now part of America's independent workforce -- working variously as accountants, computer programmers, translators, designers, health care providers, and more. They all make a living outside of traditional employment, and they are anything but a marginal part of the U.S. economy today -- and will become even more important in our future economy.

Given the reality that such a large a part of our workforce is freelancing, it is shocking how little we know about them. Measures like the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly employment reports tell us little about how these Americans work: in what sectors, for how much money, in what households. We know little about what their demographics are and how their work situations compare to that of the traditional workforce.

This highlights the obsolete way we view work in this country. With the election season around the corner, lawmakers and candidates should take note: according to a recent independent survey of over 7,000 working adults commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, 86 percent of freelancers are likely to vote in the 2016 U.S. general election - and over six out of ten are more likely to vote for a candidate who directly speaks to their interests.

So what should elected officials, political candidates and our fellow citizens know about freelancers and their interests?

To start, this is a workforce made up of 60 percent men and 40 percent women. It is evenly split among Republicans and Democrats. Today's freelancers live throughout the country -- from rural to urban areas, from north to south -- not just in a few major cities. They are racially and ethnically diverse, slightly more so than the U.S. workforce overall. Millennials comprise the largest cohort of freelancers. But almost a third of freelancers are 55 years old and above. Freelancers are also raising kids. Much like the rest of the workforce, about one-third of freelancers have children under eighteen at home. In other words, today's freelancers are your family, friends and neighbors.

Freedom, flexibility and opportunity are the driving forces in this emerging workforce. Our survey shows freelancers are pursuing careers on their own terms, based on their passions, desired lifestyle and access to a much broader pool of opportunities than ever before in history. Sixty percent say they started freelancing by choice. Close to half say that freelancing allows them to have a schedule that enables them to provide care for a family member. Two-thirds agree that freelancing provides the opportunity to work from anywhere, and more than a third have been able to choose and move to a new location thanks to the flexibility freelancing provides. For many, the pre-tech days of being tied to urban hubs, with their high costs of living and quality of life challenges, are rapidly fading.

Freelancing is also proving a worthy source of income. Almost one in four said they quit a job with an employer in order to freelance. Of those, 78 percent indicated they earned more freelancing within a year or less. Further, more than one-third report that demand for their services increased in the past year, and nearly half expect their income from freelancing to increase in the coming year. Roughly three out of four freelancers who obtain projects on websites say it typically takes them less than a week to find work online.

None of this is to say that freelancers have it easy. Like many in the traditional workforce, freelancers are concerned about the economy and have concerns around finding work, getting paid on time, procuring affordable health care, and saving for retirement. Freelancers want to see more discussion of how to empower their segment of the workforce. They don't believe that our political leaders are sufficiently focused on their interests.

Fortunately, these concerns are beginning to produce an agenda for change. This fall, for example, Freelancers Union, an organization one of us leads, will be launching a campaign in New York to put an end to late payment and non-payment -- a top concern for New York City's 1.3 million freelancers and one shared by many independent workers across the country, if they aren't using online platforms, which often provide payment protections. This is exactly the kind of issue that should be getting the attention of elected officials, in cities like New York and across the country.

Despite the growing ubiquity of freelancing, this workforce still remains overlooked, under-appreciated and poorly understood. Perhaps the best thing going for freelancers is not their career satisfaction, income or flexibility, but something more basic: their attitude. The majority of freelancers -- eighty-three percent -- say their best days are ahead. And three in four freelancers would recommend freelancing to their friends and family; with Millennials at 84 percent. In this era of globalization and technology-driven change, that's good news, because freelancers are here to stay and our economy will need them.

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