With more Americans taking freelance careers full-time and Gen-Z workers turning to independent work because it’s hard to find jobs, freelancing is becoming a far more important contributor to the U.S. economy than in the past, according to new research. And with the pandemic keeping the majority of freelancers fully occupied, the growth shows no signs of slowing.
The 59 million Americans who freelanced in the past year now generate a collective $1.2 trillion in annual earnings, an increase of 22% since last year, according to Upwork’s Freelance Forward Survey. These freelancers make up 36% of the U.S. workforce.
“The flexibility and remote-focused nature of freelancing are really on display right now,” says Adam Ozimek, chief economist of Upwork. “That flexibility is really valuable to workers and clients.”
Edelman Intelligence surveyed more than 6,000 U.S. respondents from June 15-July 7 on behalf of Upwork.
Among the key findings:
More freelancers are going full-time: The share of independent workers who earn a living through full-time freelancing is now 36%, up 8 percentage points since 2019. And 47% of freelancers view independent work as a long-term career choice.
Freelancers are making more money: 75% of those who quit a traditional job to freelance say they earn the same or more than they did. Among freelancers surveyed 61% said they have the amount of work they want or more. And many are freelancing more frequently and serving more clients than last year.
Younger workers are flocking to freelancing: Half of the Gen-Z workforce—those ages 18 to 22—has freelanced in the past year, and among them, more than one third (36%) started since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a really tough time to get your first job,” says Ozimek. “A lot of our freelancers are young, educated and looking for something to do. The new freelancers are younger, more educated and doing skilled work.”
The pandemic has created opportunities for some freelancers: According to the survey, 12% of the U.S. workforce started freelancing in the wake of COVID-19. Many of these new freelancers are skilled professionals, and they tend to be part of industries such as technology. For some, freelancing is a job-replacement.
“We are seeing a lot of new freelancers who started doing it after being laid off or losing a job,” says Ozimek.
Many freelancers saw little impact to their lifestyle: Freelancers reported a lower rate of disruption to their overall lifestyle, wellbeing, mental health, and financial wellbeing from the pandemic than other workers. Some have advised their clients on how to work remotely.
Some freelancers are hurting: The research found that 10% of the U.S. workforce “paused” freelancing, as opportunities dried up in the pandemic. Many were in industries affected most by social distancing, working in non-remote situations.
“The freelancers who can work remotely and were working remotely before the pandemic are doing better than freelancers who were working non-remotely,” says Ozimek. “Going forward, we’re going to see a lot more freelancers working remotely.”
However, even though some freelancers could not work remotely, many landed on their feet, with 51% of these “paused” freelancers relying on other sources of work. Among such “paused” freelancers, 88% said they are likely to try freelancing again in the future.
Many view freelancing as the perfect pre-retirement career. Freelancers ages 55 and up make up 25% of all freelancers, the research found. They are concentrated in skilled and project-based work. Among these freelancers, 65% see it as a good way to transition to retirement.
Freelancing is attracting a variety of workers who want flexibility: 48% of freelancers said they are caregivers, and 33% have a disability in their household. “The flexibility it provides allows them to fit work into days that work for them,” says Ozimek. “If you don’t know exactly when you can work, freelancing provides flexibility.”