Freelancing across the Atlantic

Freelancing across the Atlantic

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The United Kingdom would fit into Texas 2.84 times. The sheer size of the US is sometimes hard to comprehend. But much in the same way we’re seeing the popularity of freelancing increase here in the UK, a trip to the other side of the pond reveals a similar trend, with a significantly steeper upward curve. The number of freelancers in the UK has steadily increased since the turn of the century to 1.91 million. In the US, freelancers supposedly number 53.7 million, or 34% of the working population. By 2020, it is expected this figure will reach 50% of the population.

So, how are things different for our American friends when it comes to the freelancing workforce?

Methodology

A report into freelancing in the US, carried out in 2014 and again in 2015, titled Freelancing in America, is arguably the best source of information on this sector. It was commissioned by the Freelancers Union, a membership organisation equivalent to IPSE, based in New York; and Upwork, the largest online jobs board for freelancers in the USA. The research itself was carried out by an independent research body. It is to date the largest analysis into the freelancing sector in the USA.

However (and it’s a big however), the very definition of freelancers is different to here in the UK. ‘Freelancers’ are not just those that are exclusively freelance or those that freelance in second jobs, but are divided into five sub-categories. These definitions inflate the numbers.

On the one hand, you could say the US reports are inaccurate in that they assess a wider set of flexible workers, for example “Temporary Workers” on contracts through staffing agencies. On the other hand, you could say it’s a better indicator of how popular and economically influential freelancing is in the workforce today.

It means that a direct comparison between the UK and the US unfortunately cannot be made. But parallels can certainly be seen, and a picture of how American freelancing has grown can be put together.

Choice and lifestyle

The main driving force behind the growth of freelancers in the US, as it is in the UK, is a desire for greater flexibility. Research in the US points to 60% of freelancers starting by choice, and two-thirds agree that it has provided them with the flexibility to work from anywhere. This has sparked what some refer to as ‘The Nomad Class’.

There’s no denying that during our careers there will be bumps in the road, changes of pace, new directions, relocation. And on today’s fast-moving and inter-connected global stage, the curtains don’t come down. Working life needs to be adaptable to suit this.

In the US a freelancing lifestyle has been taken to the next level, with co-living spaces replacing mere co-working spaces. Freelancers live and work together in one big building, including gym facilities, large shared kitchens and networking events.

WeWork, based out of New York City, is driving this trend through their sister company WeLive. ‘Membership’ is a sort of hybrid between rent payment and co-working payment, and includes a bit of both. As part of their mission statement reads: “community is our catalyst”. They encourage entrepreneurial spirit and inspiration in the spaces they create. Other drivers of this trend in the US include Pure House and Common.

Demographics

In the US, over half are under the age of 40, and almost 20% are 55 and over. This paints a very similar picture to growth in freelancers in the UK, at both ends of the age spectrum. Emily Leach, founder of the Texas Freelance Association (TFA) and of The Freelance Conference, shared the demographics of those in the Lone Star State.

“At the TFA the majority of our members and attendees to events are between the 35–55 age range. The creative sector is by far the sector with the most growth of freelancers.”

This is echoed in IPSE’s research in the UK, which has seen a 115% increase in freelancers who work in the ‘artistic, literary and media’ industries.

“Our main focus at the TFA is on training and development, an area often left forgotten by those that are self-employed. As a group there is a level of support that cannot be reached as an individual – we are certainly stronger in numbers.”

There are several other organisations similar to the TFA in the USA, including the Freelancers Union, offering much-needed support to such a rapidly increasing sector of the workforce.

Technology

The rate at which technology has developed in recent years has undoubtedly enabled a growth in mobile working. The Freelancing in America report for 2015 reveals 73% of freelancers think that technology is making it easier to find work.

Caitlin Pearce, Director of Member Engagement at the Freelancers Union, completely agrees: “Much of this change has been driven by employers’ desires to utilise on-demand workers for more flexible access to skills and labour, as well as the growth of new technology enabling workers and companies to connect in a global marketplace.”

Susan Lund, Partner at the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) in the USA, recently authored a piece on the increase in on-demand service platforms and their impact on work.

She says: “If even a small fraction of inactive youth and adults use these platforms to work a few hours per week, the economic impact would be huge – amounting to some $1.3 trillion annually by 2025, according to MGI’s projections.”

Hurdles

But what has led to such a stark increase in freelancing activity in the USA? One suggestion is the state of the workforce in general that side of the Atlantic. The federal minimum wage has been set at $7.25 in the US since 2009. Many would question whether freelancing is seen as a better paid alternative to working in lower wage jobs.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) in the US has been running a campaign to raise the minimum wage, which has lost 30% of its value in the last forty years.

For freelancers in both the US and the UK, who’ve chosen a life outside of employment protections, it is important that there is support available. We are certainly stronger together, which is why organisations like IPSE, the Freelancers Union, the Texas Freelance Association, and others exist. The one difference being that, as the UK is a distinctly smaller land mass, we perhaps have an easier job of things.

As Emily Leach says: “Ultimately, here in the United States laws differ from state to state. There really needs to be an organisation like the TFA in each state. We’ve found that freelancers respond far better to ‘boots on the ground’ as a means of support and enablement. There’s much more we can do.”