The New Normal: Why We’ll All Be Freelancers One Day

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 20, 2015

Freelancing is not just a buzzy, passing trend. It’s here to stay, and it’s affecting everyone. Freelancers—the independent contractors, the moonlighters, the temporary workers, the people who build a business out of this—are shifting the entire workforce.

Upwork and Freelancers Union teamed up to produce the “Freelancing in America: 2015” survey, which was conducted by Edelman Berland. In addition to statistics on things like how many freelancers there are (one in three people is freelancing in some way—that’s about 34 percent of us), the report provides insights into why people freelance and how it’s changing how the U.S. workforce works.

“Americans are starting to have a different view of careers,” Sara Horowitz, founder of Freelancers Union, says. It’s not all “artisanal yuppies in their pajamas.”

She says people have figured out different ways to have a career, and they’re finding that it doesn’t necessarily mandate working a traditional 9-to-5 job.

Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, says that people aren’t necessarily seeking to telecommute, either—they just want that flexibility. (His group recently released a report that found telecommuting works best in moderation.)

“They want the ability to have control over their schedule and workplace so they can achieve all of their goals,” he says. Those goals can include having time with family or spending less time traveling to work on a daily basis.

The most essential part of working flexibly is to match where you work to how you work, Matos added. For some that means working from home; others still report to an office but on their own schedule, which many studies have found boosts productivity.

As more people begin freelancing—some out of necessity, others out of desire—there are now about 50 percent that say no amount of money could get them to go back to a traditional job. Of those surveyed, 34 percent earned more instantly than they did at their traditional job income, 23 percent said it took six months and 21 percent out-earned their old jobs within the first year of freelancing. More than one-third of freelancers say demand for their services increased in the past year, and 48 percent expect their freelance income to rise in the coming year.

Another cause for the shift to flexible and freelance work is due to businesses needing flexibility and skills for short-term projects. Many organizations realize it’s more cost-effective to hire on an as-needed basis—and seek out specialized skills—instead of retaining a full-time employee. People know this, so more are wading into freelance waters, even if that means moonlighting on the side of a traditional job.

“Arguably some of your best talent out there is going to be your freelancers,” says Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork.

Horowitz and Kasriel both said that the need to train freelancers beyond their area of skill (perhaps on things like managing accounting or legal aspects of freelancing) will increase. Many freelancers learn about the business aspects of independent contract work as they go, but Horowitz and Kasriel see potential for employers to take on training. Who knows, maybe corporate seminars in the future may not focus solely on building employees’ skills in a specific industry, but in how to run a freelance business—especially if the company uses a lot of freelancers.

So, not surprisingly, freelancers are affecting corporate America. A more prominent freelance workforce will and already has impacted the strategies that hiring managers and recruiters use to bring in competent workers. We could be seeing a whole new breed of job advertisements—ones that aren’t seeking out employees, but project workers.

“What I really think corporate America needs to see in general is that freelancers are pioneering a new way of living,” Kasriel says.

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