Exploring the UK freelancer workforce in 2016

Exploring the UK freelancer workforce in 2016

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With freelancers making an economic contribution comparable to the entire motor sales industry in 2016, IPSE has released a new report exploring who makes up this vital segment of the workforce
Freelancers’ contribution to the UK economy soared to £119 billion in 2016, up from £109 billion in 2015. This economic contribution is driven by a highly skilled, flexible workforce of two million freelancers, which has increased by 43 per cent since 2008.
 
These figures highlight the enormous contribution independent professionals make to businesses across the UK and the economy as a whole. Large firms and increasingly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are tapping into this growing pool of independent workers who are available on demand, with the specialist skills to hit the ground running – adding considerable value to the organisation and enabling them to respond to fluctuating economic conditions.
 
At the same time, individuals are determinedly seeking to build a portfolio of skills and experience by working flexibly. Previous research from IPSE shows that the vast majority of freelancers love what they do and make an active choice to work independently, so it’s no surprise that increasing numbers of people are turning to this way of working.
 
With very few signs of growth in freelancing slowing down anytime soon, IPSE’s new report ‘Exploring the freelance workforce in 2016’ provides insight into this increasing vital segment of the UK labour market. Here we take a look at some of characteristics and trends highlighted in the report to present a contemporary picture of the UK’s freelance workforce.
 

Freelancers driving self-employment growth

The continued expansion of the freelance workforce is evident across a range of industries, and growth has continued unabated during both the global financial crisis of 2008-9 as well as the subsequent economic upturn. Freelancers now represent 42 per cent of the wider 4.8 million self-employed populations and are the fastest-growing segment of self-employment. 
 

A workforce distinguished by their skills

Freelancers are distinguished from other subsectors of the self emplyed workforce by their skill level. They are typically found working in occupations that fall within the highest standard occupational categories: managers, directors and senior officials; professional occupations; and associate professional and technical occupations. Making up 39 per cent of the UK freelance workforce are those working associate professional and technical occupations. Closely behind are freelance workers in professional occupations, followed by managerial occupations – representing 36 per cent and 24 per cent of the UK freelance workforce respectively.
 

Top roles for freelancers

When taking a look at the specific types of roles being performed by freelancers, the largest proportion is found working in artistic, literary and media occupations (311,000 freelancers), working as managers and proprietors in other services (211,000), and in teaching and education professions (153,000). These three occupational groups continue to be the most important numerically, making up more than a third of all freelance workers.
 
Regarding growth, the number of freelancers working in artistic, literary and media occupations and in sports and fitness occupations has almost doubled since 2008. The fastest growing occupational group since 2008 is health associate professions (including for example paramedics, emergency care practitioners, pharmaceutical technicians and dental hygienists), which has almost tripled in size. The health care industry is widely known for its adoption of flexible work practices, which could be one reason behind the striking rate of growth among health associate professionals.
 

Females leading the way in the decision to go solo

Within the UK’s freelance workforce 59 per cent are male, and 41 per cent are female. Even though men account for more freelancers numerically, there has been a larger increase in the number of female freelancers compared to males between 2008 and 2016 – 55 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.
 
There are 302,000 mothers working as freelancers in their chosen professions, which equates to 15 per cent of all freelancers in the UK. This is an increase of 79 per cent since 2008, nearly double the rate of increase in the freelance workforce as a whole.
 
These figures mark a trend towards increased self-employment among females which has been evident for the past two decades, and highlights that working independently may be a more attractive option for those seeking to strike a work-life balance.
 

Millennials outstrip growth among the generations

The most significant growth since 2008 has been among younger freelancers aged 16-29, rising 66 per cent since 2008. Though this age group account for the lowest proportion of all freelancers overall, the growth witnessed since 2008 may suggest a changing attitude towards post-graduate vocations and ways of working, with more young people choosing to start their freelance businesses.
 
The largest proportion of freelancers, however, fall within the 40-49 and 50-59 age brackets – combined representing nearly half (48%) of all freelancers. This might be owing to the level of specialism and expertise that professionals commonly reach at this stage in life, giving them the confidence to work independently.
 

Freelancing soars in popularity in London

The number of freelancers working in Greater London has increased by 59 per cent since 2008, making it the fastest growing region for freelancers in Great Britain. Of the two million freelancers in the UK, 21 per cent live in the Greater London area.
 
The significant role that freelancers are playing in the capital is not surprising given that London’s economy is largely based on service industries, which includes many occupations that freelancers typically work in. There is also a large number of supportive communities and co-working spaces in London which are changing the freelance game and enabling the flexible economy.
 
If you come across a freelancer in London, almost one in five (18%) work in artistic, literary and media professions. This occupational group is the largest of all freelancers in the UK, with London accounting for a quarter of all those working in these occupations. The average age of freelancers in London is 45, which is slightly younger than the national average of 47.
 
Compared to the UK as a whole, there is a slightly higher proportion of females working as freelancers in London. Female freelancers in London are also trumping growth, increasing by 95 per cent since 2008. The growth of female freelancers in London has been at a faster rate than males in London (40%) and females freelancers across the UK as a whole (55%).
 
Words by Kayte Jenkins
Research