PERSPECTIVE: The Rise of the Full-Time Freelancer

by Melissa Harris Four months in, it still feels a bit strange when I come home after dropping off the kids at school. I’d been a full-time employee for 14 years—Going to work meant going somewhere else, not back home.

But here I am, at home, working. And I am so grateful.

My children are 4 and 6 years old, so predictability (and avoiding germs at school) is a laughable idea. And long days in before- and after-care were not only very expensive, but also exhausting for them. I needed to work and wanted to stay in my profession, but I also wanted the flexibility to work around the needs of my family. Office life just wasn’t right for me, or us, anymore.CT perspective

When I shared the news that I was striking out on my own, many people encouraged me with their own stories of going freelance or running a small business from home. Some did it for their family, and some did it to pursue their career and passions on their own terms. They all said it was really, really hard—but none of them regretted it. It was right for them.

Just like anything else, becoming an independent consultant has its pros and cons. Over the last four months, I’ve already learned that it’s not a better way, rather a different way to juggle career, income, and family needs. I’m working hard (and lots of odd hours), but around life. So, it’s right for me.

And it’s right for a steadily increasing number of people.

An annual study commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork estimates that 19.1 million professionals, or about 12% of the U.S. workforce, are independent contractors who freelance full time. Other studies more conservatively estimate the full-time independent workforce at about 8%. That’s still about 12.5 million Americans.

The Upwork study also found that 63% of freelancers do so by choice, up from 53% in 2014.* Full-time freelancers indicated they feel empowered and engaged by their work, and that flexibility and freedom are the biggest reasons they chose to freelance. (It also doesn’t hurt that 77% of full-time freelancers reported that within a year, they were making as much or more than when they were full-time employees.)

This dynamic is consistent with reseq1arch done by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), and by Field Nation. Field Nation cited a recent Gallup Poll that found 70% of traditional W-2 employees are disengaged in their workplace. By comparison, Field Nation found that 88% of independent contractors see themselves as highly engaged entrepreneurs who feel ownership and enjoyment in what they do. And 90% feel deeply committed to their clients’ success.

Who is freelancing may or may not surprise you. Upwork estimates that Baby Boomers reluctant to retire account for about 30 percent of U.S. freelancers. And a 2015 survey by economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger found that freelance work is especially on the rise among older workers, women, and minorities.

Of course, technology is a huge enabler of freelancing, but there are also other factors that are creating a greater demand for freelancers.

Simply put, employee benefits are very expensive, and many large corporations are already accustomed to managing teams spread out over multiple locations. More companies are therefore moving towards a “blended workforce,” with leaner W-2 staffing supplemented by readily available and skilled freelancers (1099s).q2

In this labor equation, the biggest risk for the American worker is taking on the cost of health insurance. If more employers staff lean, then more individuals and families will be on the hook for their healthcare. (Cue the partisan bickering.) Saving for retirement could similarly become more difficult.

Another risk of freelancing is not getting paid for the work you do. New York City is leading the way with new a labor law called the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” which protects freelancers from wage theft.

Other labor policies will similarly need to be examined. Katz and Krueger raise red flags around protections for a reasonable workweek, vacation and sick days, gender parity, and fair wages. Access to credit is another concern.

As the full-time independent workforce continues to grow, employers and policymakers will need to evolve practices and protections so that the dynamic continues to be mutually beneficial.

But in the meantime, I’m going to get my daughter off the school bus.


Melissa Harris a strategist and copywriter with over 10 years of experience developing meaningful brands, engagement programs, and communications. She now freelances full time as Forthwrite Strategies.


* If 63% of freelancers do so by choice, then 37% do not. This is where Krueger and Katz point to “involuntary part time” workers who want full time, traditional employment. They see the rise of nonstandard work as a consequence of the recession. As prime examples, they cite young graduates who take temp jobs, and people forced to supplement part-time jobs with freelance or gig work.