GT Report: The Growth Of The Freelance Economy

By November 4, 2016News, Thoughts

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Being a freelancer has always been hard work – it requires a lot of graft and dedication to pull off being your own boss and successfully running your own business – but these days the slog is potentially even harder than it was before. Not only do you still have to do all the things that you already had to do – such as all your own sales, marketing, accounts and, obviously, the actual work – but you also now have to compete against so many other people doing exactly the same thing that you do (albeit not as well, clearly).

 

The reason for this increase in competition is simple; the age of the freelancer has arrived. In recent years, the freelance economy has grown exponentially (so much so, that the freelance economy is now an actual thing) and there are now more freelancers than the human race has ever experienced before. But far from this being a negative turn of events, we at GrowTraffic think this is brilliant. We love a freelancer, so it’s a case of ‘the more the merrier’ as far as we’re concerned. But what exactly has happened to facilitate this sudden explosion in freelancing, and how will it affect the way we all work as a result? 

 

Freelance labour is central to the way we work here at GrowTraffic so I’ve been doing a little research to find out more, and to bring you my brief report on the state of the freelance economy in the UK in 2016.

 

The Rise In Freelancing

 

There have always been freelancers in the workplace, but, in recent years, their numbers have been steadily increasing. Whereas they were once maybe perceived as the reserve of the rather arty and bookish creative sectors, you’re now much more likely to encounter freelancers in practically any industry and any role, whether it be administrative, creative or agricultural; even then professional classes are going freelance. No matter what the business or where in the country you are, it seems that freelancers are literally everywhere.

 

And far from just being an anecdotal observation, this proliferation of freelancers is actually backed up by the research too. According to a report published in April 2016 by the Small Business Research Centre at Kingston University in London (yep, proper research!), there are currently almost 2 million freelance workers in the UK, which is about 6% of all the entire UK workforce. More importantly though, the number of freelancers now working in the UK has grown by over 36% since 2008; that’s a massive rate of growth in under a decade, and the figure is still rising.

 

Just to give you an idea of actual numbers, the same report states that;

 

“The largest freelance groups are artistic, literary and media occupations with 328,000 freelancers (17 per cent), managers and proprietors in other services with 222,000 freelancers (12 per cent), and teaching and education professionals with 139,000 freelancers (7 per cent). These three occupational groups continue to be the most important numerically; they now constitute more than a third of all freelance workers.”

 

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So, whilst it’s evident that freelancers are slowly creeping into all sectors of the British workplace, this data unarguably illustrates that the biggest group of freelancers are still the creatives, with a whopping two thirds of workers from the artistic, literary and media occupations now being freelancers. Two thirds! That’s double the amount than in 2008.

 

More Than Just Creative Freelancers

 

But we at GrowTraffic didn’t actually need a report to tell us that. As most of the people and businesses we work with come broadly within the creative industries, we encounter freelancers practically every day, and yes, we’ve noticed just how many more of them there are now when compared to when GT was first launched almost 9 years ago. We work with Freelance Web Developers, Freelance Graphic Designers and Freelance Copywriters at some stage of almost every project we take on.

 

More than that though, GT itself actively markets ourselves as freelancers too – we are Freelance SEO Copywriters and Freelance SEO Consultants. We are the very definition of freelance (“self-employed and hired to work for different companies on particular assignments”); we’re experts in SEO, so we go into companies who require SEO but have a gap in their labour skillset to provide a service. We are engaged on a – usually – short-term basis for a specific project, then we move on to the next one.

 

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And clearly, we’re not alone in this; freelancing is not only the norm for our business, but also for our wider industry in general too. It’s fair to say that none of us would function well without it. Yet, as the research shows, this trend for freelancing is now spreading far beyond the hallowed sphere of the creative industries: according again to the report from Kingston University, the freelance workforce now includes;

 

“writers, artists and musicians, science and engineering technicians, sports and fitness occupations, and protective service occupations. There are 686,000 freelance workers (36 per cent) in professional occupations and a further 437,000 (23 per cent) work in managerial occupations.”

 

Yes, in what the Harvard Business Review once called ‘The Rise Of The Supertemp”, many people in the professional classes – such as lawyers, directors, financial advisors and business consultants – are now choosing to work freelance rather than align themselves to a single organisation. Yet, far from the impression that term insinuates, freelancing is not merely the equivalent of temp work, nor is there anything casual or informal about it. Rather, freelancing is specialised work carried out by dedicated, often highly-qualified experts who are passionate about what they do.

 

But why exactly has freelancing become so much more popular now than it was less than a decade ago? And what impact is this having on our workplaces in general?

 

The Changing Workforce

 

There are actually several key reasons as to why freelancing has become such a popular option for our modern workforce, all of which have combined to create the ideal breeding ground for this more flexible, but much more specialised, way of working.

 

The first is the changing economic climate. Since the financial crisis that hit us at the tail end of the noughties, and the subsequent recession that followed it, many companies have had to adapt their business model to ensure their continued survival and, for many, that has meant downsizing. As such, many businesses – from small enterprises to large corporations – have had to cull those personnel who aren’t immediately necessary to the day-to-day running of the company, meaning that many workforces have become generic and specialist expertise is often no longer available in-house. The surge in freelancers has been the beautiful response to this ugly situation, creating a flexible and highly-specialised workforce who can be hired temporarily on a purely need-driven basis, as and when required.

 

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The changing demographic makeup of the UK’s workforce has also had an impact: according to the same report from Kingston University, “freelancers aged 60 and older comprise 21 per cent of the stock of freelance workers, a marginally higher proportion than in 2008”. Here, the perfect storm of our rising life expectancy, the abolition of the Default Retirement Age and inadequate pension provision in the light of the planned increases in the State Pensionable Age have all combined to create a section of society who are continuing to work on after their 60s. And for both economic and social reasons – such as the wish to avoid ageism in the employment market, or the need to care for family members – the over 60s are much more likely to work on a freelance basis, meaning that this figure will only continue to grow.

 

And those social reasons are not exclusive to the over 60s either; the increase in employee dissatisfaction, the saturated jobs market and our changing lifestyles all have a similar influence on the younger generations. No longer will working people gratefully take any job they can get and stick at it for life, regardless of whether or not it makes them happy; those days are gone. Now, workers want a healthy work life balance – they want to see their children, they want job satisfaction, they want a career path – and the flexibility afforded by freelancing offers that. Admittedly, many employers are now catching on to this and changing their working environments and employee policies accordingly, but clearly numerous jobseekers still prefer the diversity of being able to choose where they work and with whom, and freelancing offers those options.

 

Technology Reinventing The Workplace

 

Arguably though, one of the biggest contributing factors in the inexorable rise of the freelancer is the emergence of enabling technology, which is changing the way we work altogether.

 

Of course, we all know that the world is getting smaller; the ready availability of the appropriate technology all over the world has now made doing business globally a piece of cake – why get on a plane when you can have a video conference call with people on all sides of the planet, at the same time, for pennies? – but it’s more than that. Why now have a massive office full of people – with all the red tape and costly overheads that that entails – when you can have people working remotely or at home for a fraction of the cost?

 

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Many businesses are now foregoing the vast expense of having one or more centralised offices in favour of smaller, localised hubs, or even having a work-from-home workforce. The technology is now there to facilitate it, with computer systems that enable bosses to monitor when and how much their staff are working, conferencing software that means employees can still talk to each other cheaply and frequently, smartphones, tablets and a myriad of other technological advances that overcome any objections that once existed to this way of working.

 

Thus, many employers are now changing the way their businesses operate and allowing their staff much more flexibility to choose when and where they work. In fact, according to a report by the TUC released earlier this year, nearly a quarter of a million (241,000) more people now work from home than did a decade ago – with that being another figure that is only expected to rise – and this change in the mindset of both employer and employee is further fuelling the growth of a freelance workforce.

 

Working Together Whilst Working Alone  

 

In response to this, many of our towns and cities have recently seen the rise of a new type of space; the communal workplace. Whether it’s specific companies doing it for their own employees or members, or companies just dedicated to providing quality co-working spaces, there are now many places where freelancers and other individual professionals can go to work. Once the reserve of the big cities like Manchester, these co-working environments are now popping up all over the place and they provide the perfect location to work on an ad hoc basis. Plus, in addition to supplying the basics – like a desk, a phone a plug socket and a Wi-Fi connection – many places also have onsite meeting rooms, canteens and even recreational areas, as well as a choice of open-plan or private workspaces, mostly in nicely decorated and stylish surroundings too. If nothing else, your work selfies will look miles better!

 

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The benefits of shared workspaces are many and mutual; for those companies moving over to this business model, they can massively reduce their overheads and thus get a cheap but highly flexible and responsive workforce, which perfectly meets the demands of our current economic climate. Similarly, freelancers get the best of both worlds too; shared workspaces offer the benefits of a working environment – such as the chance to meet and collaborate with likeminded people, and the avoidance of the isolation that can sometimes come with working alone from home – without the inflexibility and stress of having to commute to a central office for a 9 – 5 day.

 

The Freelancing Platforms

 

But there’s another major development that’s come about in recent years that is also having a singular impact on the number of freelancers in the workplace, and that’s the new proliferation of platforms designed to match companies with talent.

 

Only a few short years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to a successful freelance career was the acquisition of sufficient clients to make the business viable; how could anyone risk leaving full-time employment to become a freelancer? Often just the cost of running a successful marketing or advertising campaign to acquire those first few new clients was prohibitive in itself. But oh, how things have changed now!

 

Admittedly, the need to secure sufficient work to keep a freelancing business afloat has not gone away – in fact, according to Contently’s excellent annual report, Contently Study: The State of Freelancing in 2016’, 49% of respondents named securing enough work as their biggest challenge – but there are now so many more options out there. For one thing, the growth of the internet – and social media in particular – as well as the changes in SEO, have all democratised marketing and enabled anyone with any budget to market themselves effectively online and grow their customer following.

 

Moreover, however, the absolute explosion of online platforms, which are designed to match one person with a skill to another person who needs that skill, have revolutionised the freelance economy. Contently is one such example but there are so many more – Freelancer, People Per Hour, Upwork, Guru, Crunch, even Fiverr (I could go on, the list is seemingly endless) – there are sites for general freelancers and sites for specialist freelancers, plus industry or location specific sites and even price specific sites, all designed to find work for freelancers. Thanks to these platforms, businesses are now able to search specifically for the talent or skills they require and freelancers are able to find a steady stream of clients and keep their project pipeline filled, enabling more and more people to start freelancing with less worry and stress.

 

Appy Freelancers

 

And it’s not just finding work that these new platforms excel in; there are now some really useful and clever little platforms and apps that can make the entire business of being a freelancer simple.

 

Again, whatever the business sector and whatever the budget, there’s something out there for everyone. Take accounts as an example; from the all-singing-all-dancing accountancy software packages on the market to the fabulously handy yet powerful little bit of software that is Invoice2go, there are now a huge range of options available to help smooth the path to becoming profitably self-employed.

 

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And some platforms are going even further in bridging the gap between full-time and self-employment by offering additional services such as human resources, web consulting and accounting, with some even beginning to provide occupational health provisions for self-employed freelancers. There’s even a murmuring amongst the freelance community around establishing a freelancer’s union, bringing individual people together and giving them the collective backing to defend their rights along with other UK workers.

 

From analysis to reporting, from marketing to sales, from administration to accounts and now even pastoral care, anything any freelancer may need to run a successful and efficient freelancing business is readily available, and often for incredibly competitive prices (if not for free) making freelancing more accessible and appealing to a much wider audience.

 

Reaping The Rewards

 

The most promising thing about the rise of the freelance economy though, is the mutual benefit for everyone involved; if there is a downside to this trend, I can’t find it.

 

In terms of the businesses, those who employ freelancers are able to significantly ease the burden of having a large and permanent workforce, thereby cutting their overheads and drastically reducing their annual budget. Instead, companies can better target their workforce and employ highly-qualified and highly-specialised personnel on a project by project basis, meaning they get the expertise they require as and when they require it. This makes modern businesses far more flexible and responsive than ever before, whilst the financial savings ensure ongoing sustainability and allow the company to re-invest in improvement and growth.

 

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On the flip side of the coin, for the freelancers, the benefits are equally attractive. In addition to being their own boss, freelance workers get flexible working hours, the ability to work on projects they’re truly passionate about, an adaptable working environment and, overall, a fulfilling and rewarding career doing something they love. And whilst it’s true that there are now so many more freelancers competing for work than ever before, thanks to all the great resources now available, each one is better equipped to do their best job the best they can.

 

So regardless of whether or not you’ve bought into the freelance economy yet, the undeniable truth is that this trend for freelance working is only going to continue. According to a recent blog post by the HR specialists, Bright HR, the modern workplace is changing and freelancing is on the up, so;

 

“we may all need to consider this part-time, flexible work as a more viable option. Instead of having one career over our lifetime we may have several and potentially we could have a couple jobs on the go at any one time. Instead of climbing the traditional corporate ladder employees could zig zag, either internally or externally, from one job role to another. Developing experience, skills and networks as they go.”

 

According to every study I read whilst researching this post, the number of freelancers in the workplace has grown exponentially in just a very few short years and is confidently expected to continue in the next few. And this is not simply a UK phenomenon, this is happening worldwide; so, expect much more international freelance collaboration in the coming years too, as more and more industries cotton on to the benefits of the freelance economy and the global workplace gets even smaller still.

 

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Get In Touch

 

If you’d like to find out more about the freelance economy, or speak to a real-life freelancer for yourself, then please get in touch with GrowTraffic today and we’ll happily wax lyrical for a bit!

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