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36% of Workforce Has Freelanced in Past 12 Months

Tamara E. Holmes
36% of Workforce Has Freelanced in Past 12 Months
36% of Workforce Has Freelanced in Past 12 Months

Freelancers continued to be an economic force amid rising unemployment rates earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, accounting for 36% of the workforce in the past year.

In fact, 59 million Americans freelanced in the past year, which is 2 million more than reported in 2019, according to Freelance Forward 2020, a survey conducted by jobs site Upwork.

While the crisis caused some freelancers to take a pause, others have joined the ranks and see this as a long-term career option.

Pandemic helps some freelancers, hinders others

Freelancers have collectively earned $1.2 trillion in the past year, up 22% from 2019’s report. While 48% of the independent workforce freelanced part time:

  • 14% freelanced while holding a separate full-time job

  • 36% freelanced full time

Economic anxiety may have contributed to the growth of the freelance market, as 12% of workers explored freelancing for the first time during the pandemic. More than half of those workers (54%) said they started freelancing out of necessity, while 75% said they did so to create financial stability during the recession. Most have been happy with the financial experience, as an overwhelming 96% said they’re likely to freelance in the future.

However, not all freelancers had good things to report during the pandemic. In fact, 1 in 10 freelancers stopped freelancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Of those who took a pause from freelancing, many worked in industries that have been hurt by social distancing guidelines.

More than half (51%) have other sources of work, and 41% of those who paused said they were only freelancing infrequently. However, most (88%) said they expect to continue in the future.

Freelancers see increasing opportunities

Of the freelance workforce (respondents could choose more than one option):

  • 50% provide skilled services

  • 37% provide unskilled services

  • 28% sell goods

  • 17% perform other activities

A majority of freelancers (60%) said they make as much as or more than they would make if they worked for a traditional employer, which was up 7 percentage points from 2019 research. Freelancers are also confidently taking their earning potential into their own hands, as 57% of skilled freelancers said they set their own prices and 44% of skilled freelancers raised their rates in the past year.

Freelancers also have varying degrees of education. Among the postgraduate workforce, 45% are freelancers. In comparison:

  • 37% of those with high school diplomas or less are freelancers

  • 32% of those with some college are freelancers

  • 32% of those with bachelor’s degrees are freelancers

Younger workers also see the value of freelancing, as 50% of Generation Z workers have done freelancing in the past year, compared with:

  • 44% of millennials

  • 30% of Generation Xers

  • 26% of baby boomers

Methodology: Upwork commissioned global research firm Edelman Intelligence to survey 6,001 adults between June 15, 2020 and July 7, 2020, who had worked for pay in the past 12 months. Of survey respondents, 2,132 self-identified as freelancers and 3,869 self-identified as non-freelancers. Upwork defined the generations as follows:

  • Gen Zers: Ages 18 to 22

  • Millennials: Ages 23 to 38

  • Gen Xers: Ages 39 to 54

  • Baby boomers: Ages 55 and older