HR 21 January 2016

Exclusive statistics: Busting the myths of freelancing

Freelancers are a great way to maintain a flexible workforce
Freelancers are a great way to maintain a flexible workforce

Simon McVicker, director of policy at the Association of the Independent Professional and Self Employed (IPSE), addresses many of the myths surrounding the work of freelancers in the UK.

Month by month we see ever greater numbers of people becoming self-employed. Have no doubt, this is an overwhelmingly positive and life changing decision, and once done, most never go back to regular employment.

But far too often the freelance community can find itself at the mercy of critics who peddle myths on freelancing in a bid to deter those from taking the leap. Research from an IPSE national survey found that almost nine in ten (86 per cent) freelancers agree they are very satisfied working on a freelance basis.

It’s high time we address these myths and take a look at the real truths.

Myth one – Most freelancers have been forced into working this way

One of the main drivers behind the surge in those who work for themselves is sometimes thought to be the lack of jobs available – or at least, a lack of worthwhile jobs. It has been suggested that in the absence of conventional employment people are forced to work for themselves instead.

But this is far from the truth. The number of freelancers who started out with no other option remain a minority, just ten per cent. And the satisfaction levels speak for themselves; our research shows only two per cent are now actively looking to become a regular employee. In addition, figures from ONS show fewer people are leaving self-employment than ever before.

A recent report from Citizens Advice revealed over two thirds (67 per cent) of self-employed people are never or only occasionally stressed about their job, compared to 58 per cent of employees. This may explain why self-employed people are more likely to report feeling satisfied with their work than employees.

Myth two – The growth in the number of freelancers is just a blip

The number of freelancers has grown significantly since the recession. This has led some to believe that the strength of the sector will be short-lived, and that when we’re enjoying a strong period of economic growth, things will return to “normal” and many freelancers will move back into permanent roles.

However, this ignores the fact that according to ONS figures, the number of freelancers has been increasing at a steady rate since the 1990s, long before the recession began. Much of this growth is due to industrial and technological changes and demographic trends. For instance, freelancers over 50 account for around half the increase since 2004, while the growing number of women freelancers has also contributed – 40 per cent of the freelancing workforce in the UK are now women, up from about 25 per cent in the late 90’s.

Myth three – Most new freelancers are in low skilled jobs

Some critics question whether the types of businesses freelancers operate are of a “serious” nature.

They suggest a large number of freelancers are low skilled or poorly paid, and take on any kind of work they can get. These claims are often “supported” by the rise in part-time self-employment, which accounts for half the overall increase in self-employment since the turn of the century.

Yet data from the ONS Labour Force survey shows the biggest growth in entrepreneurial activity since 2008 is actually among highly skilled individuals, like professionals, managers, directors and senior officials. They are likely to make a bigger contribution to the UK economy than lesser skilled, non-specialist employees.

So what are the facts?

Freelancers are here to stay. We found that almost two thirds (65 per cent) intend to continue working as a freelancer for the foreseeable future. Comparatively, only two per cent want to make the switch to becoming a regular employee.

Clearly the rise of freelancing is not just a flash in the pan, and after helping pull the economy out of the recession, is here to stay. In fact, if the number of freelancers continues to increase at this rate, there will soon be more people self-employed than those working in the public sector in the next few years. This is a significant change to our economy.

When we spoke to one of our IPSE Awards finalists’ Ben Matthews, he believed the changes to the working environment are leading to a greater proportion of freelancers: “I think the world of freelancing is changing as digital technology grows. The way we’re working is increasingly online and I think that’s an advantage for freelancers because we can set up quite quickly and run our businesses just using digital tools. I think we’ll see more people take advantage of that and become freelancers.”

Working independently can be incredibly rewarding, but it is hard work, and freelancers can often face challenges employees don’t experience. Yet the UK’s 1.9m independent professionals love what they do. Our research dispel’s the myth that freelancers choose to work this way because they have no other choice or are forced into it. Most of them gladly accept the “risks” in the knowledge they get the flexibility to choose how and when they work in return.

If you’re a freelancer yourself and are loosing sleep ahead of the 31 January self-assessment deadline, then it would probably be worth checking out the GOV.UK Verify service – which we looked at in more detail at the start of 2016.

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