Discover the hard facts and surprising figures about the growth of the gig economy, and how it's transforming the lives of millions.
What You Will Learn
A Freelance World
Over the last two decades or so, technology has had a huge impact on the way we live and work. The advent of the Internet has heralded a new world of global collaboration, sharing and communication.
One of the most striking effects of this revolution has been the rise of the gig economy. Thanks to technologies such as video conferencing, document sharing and online project management, people have been freed from the need to work in the same office.
In fact, they don’t have to work in the same office - or even the same country. This has opened up an opportunity for millions to embrace the freelance lifestyle. They work for different companies at different times, often across multiple time zones.
More recently, the explosive growth of app-based solutions such as Uber, Amazon Flex and TaskRabbit has added a whole new dimension of freelance work. The result has been the meteoric rise of the ‘gig economy.’
This massive change in the way we work opens up many interesting questions about how this new economy should operate:
Tens of millions of people now work without a full-time employer. Some simply do a few gigs as a side hustle to make a few extra bucks at weekends. But many others choose the freelance lifestyle as a long-term career option.
The statistics are not only impressive but very surprising. Let’s dive in and take a look…
Defining the Gig Economy
Let’s start by defining what we are talking about. Merriam-Webster defines a freelancer as:
‘a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.’
The term originated in the middle ages, when some knights were loyal to particular lords, while others were mercenaries with ‘free lances’ who fought for anyone who would pay them.
The term ‘gig economy’ is much more recent. WhatIs.com defines the term as follows:
‘A gig economy is a free market system in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.’
Here a gig is any paying proposition which is undertaken on an occasional basis, which could be anything from washing dishes at a pizza parlour to undertaking management consulting for a Fortune 500 company.
The Size of the Gig Economy
So just how big is the freelance market? That depends on who you ask. Different surveys produce different results:
However, all of these studies show that the market is a lot bigger than you might expect. According to a survey by Upwork and Freelancers Union, 55 million people in the U.S. (35% of the workforce) are now working freelance at least some of the time.
The Mckinsey Global Institute Survey of Independent Workers gives us a broader perspective, covering both the U.S. and Europe. This survey shows that 20-30% of working-age people are working independently, putting the total at around 162 million, breaking down the numbers as follows:
1. Free Agents: freelancers who actively choose a career in the gig economy - 30% of independent workers (49 million)
2. Casual earners: professionals who augment their main income with freelance work - 40% of workers (64 million)
3. Reluctants: people who work in the gig economy because they can’t get a full-time job - 14% (23 million)
4. Financially Strapped: people who are forced to moonlight in order to pay the bills - 16% (26 million)
These numbers tells us that around 43% of the original 162 million work full time as freelancers. For the rest, taking part in the gig economy is a side hustle. So overall, we find that between 8.6% and 12.9% of working adults in the U.S. and Europe are full-time freelance professionals.
These numbers are backed up by the State of Independence Survey from MBO Partners, which finds that 41.8 million adults in the U.S. work independently. The same survey predicts 3.6% annual growth, so that by 2023, half of the American workforce will have worked freelance at least some of the time.
Most surveys produce similar numbers. In the 2018 ‘Gig Economy and Alternative Work Arrangements Study,’ Gallup found that 36% of U.S. workers are gig workers. The report states:
"Gallup estimates that 29% of all workers in the U.S. have an alternative work arrangement as their primary job. This includes a quarter of all full-time workers (24%) and half of all part-time workers (49%). Including multiple job holders, 36% have a gig work arrangement in some capacity."
This works out to about 57 million Americans in total. Most surveys produce similar results.
How Much Do Freelancers Earn?
As we can see a lot of people are choosing to work in the gig economy. But how much money are they actually making?
If you look at the overall average, the numbers don’t seem to be that impressive. Earnest, a loan provider based in San Francisco, analyzed tens of thousands of loan applications to study the impact of gig-economy jobs. They found that 85% of gig workers make less than $500 a year.
But those numbers seem to be very much on the low side. Payoneer (a global payment platform) surveyed over 23,000 freelancers from 180 different countries and found much more encouraging numbers.
The survey showed that the average freelancer works around 36 hours a week, earning $21 an hour. This equates to a pre-tax salary of over $39,000. In most of the countries surveyed, this income is substantially higher than the salary of a typical full-time employee.
Scott Galit, CEO of Payoneer, says that today’s "borderless world" has created new work opportunities for freelancers all over the world:
“There's an obvious appeal to freelancing. Businesses worldwide can tap into a larger and more diverse talent pool than ever before. Freelancers and service providers [can] secure work with international companies.
“Freelancing offers smart, talented, hardworking professionals and business owners in emerging economies such as Argentina, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Serbia a major breakthrough in job prospects and earning potential that they would have never thought possible a few years ago.”
MBO Partners reports that many freelancers are doing even better financially. Their study shows there are 3.3 million freelancers earning $100,000 or more in the U.S. alone.
These high earners mostly offer professional services, working in hot areas such as:
It is also worth noting that some freelance professionals, such as direct response copywriters, can earn over a millions dollars a year.
How Happy are Freelancers?
There are pros and cons to working freelance. So how happy are people who work in the gig economy overall? The Gallup poll mentioned above is very instructive here. Both freelancers and full-time employees were asked a number of questions about their contentment at work.
Independent gig workers were the clear winners. They scored much higher on the happiness scale than traditional job holders across all job metrics:
There is no doubt that freelancers gain many lifestyle benefits, such as flexible hours and freedom to work where they choose. But as you might expect, they fall behind traditional workers in terms of regular benefits and promptness of payment.
According to Gallup, traditional workers strongly agree that they get paid on time (82%), while less than 70% of freelancers agreed.
Some freelance professionals, such as direct response copywriters, can earn over a millions dollars a year.
Another peculiarity of the freelance lifestyle is loneliness, which can lead to depression and reduced productivity. This is one reason why co-working spaces have become so popular.
According to the Harvard Business Review, freelancers using co-working spaces are satisfied with the arrangement, and consider the additional costs of co-working to be worth it:
Quick Gig-Economy Stats Summary
Here are some quick stats about the freelance and gig economy to put all of the above in perspective:
The gig workforce is adding $715 billion to the U.S. economy by doing freelance work
31% of freelancers say they can find a gig online in less than 24 hours
36% of Americans say they’ve thought about quitting to go freelance
32% of freelancers say demand for their services is growing
43% of freelancers expect their income to rise in the next year
The number of people submitting 1099 (freelance) tax forms has gone up by 22% since 2000
54% of older adults don’t want to undertake full-time jobs
77% of freelancers say they make the same or more than they did in their full-time job
Some 24% of Americans are making money from the digital ‘platform economy’
All industry sectors experienced growth in gig-style businesses between 2003 and 2013
80% of full-time job workers would be prepared to do freelance work to make extra money
53% of freelancers started doing gig work by choice, not necessity
65% of freelancers say the Internet has made it easier to find work
18% of Americans have earned money in the last 12 months by selling online
8% have made money in the last year using digital platforms such as UpWork
More than a third of millennials work in the gig economy
23% of those using digital platforms to find gigs are students
65% say that freelancing is more respected than it was three years ago
77% of freelancers say the best days of the freelance job market are still in the future
The 21st Century Lifestyle
We have seen massive changes in the first two decades of the 21st century, and we can expect further big shifts towards the gig economy in the decades to come.
The freelance lifestyle offers many benefits to individuals, and evolving technology is continually creating amazing new opportunities to make money in new ways. For those who embrace the changes, working freelance in the gig economy is clearly a great way to make a living whilst enjoying life to the full.