THE BLOG

55 Million Americans Freelance. So Why Don't Politicians Talk About Them?

10/06/2016 09:24 am ET
Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Freelancers have long been a large part of the American workforce, albeit one that is largely misunderstood. But perceptions are changing. Freelancers used to be seen as people who were not very serious about their occupations; now they are increasingly empowered entrepreneurs choosing to build their own businesses or careers. And their numbers are huge: 55 million Americans freelanced this past year and their earnings from freelancing reached an estimated $1 trillion -- an enormous amount of money being brought into communities all across this country.

Our organizations commissioned a study together, for the third year running, and this year's Freelancing in Americasurvey shows that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce freelanced in 2016, making freelancers one of the largest segments of any type of worker. Since 2014, our study estimates that 2 million more U.S. workers started freelancing. To put it in context, the population of freelancers is greater than that of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania combined.

And yet despite their numbers, there's almost no discussion of freelancers' interests in the political sphere. That is a lost opportunity for both parties. It is also a major oversight of one of the biggest constituencies driving the U.S. workforce and economy.

We believe it's time for America to take seriously one of its largest sources of entrepreneurial creativity -- freelancers -- and to start an open, public discussion about this growing workforce.

Freelancers comprise many different types and work across all industries, from graphic designers and web developers to nannies, lawyers and opera singers. They include men and women and represent a diversity of ethnic and racial backgrounds. They live all over the country, not just in major cities. By putting together diverse income streams to create a life that gives them flexibility, creativity, and control, freelancers are pioneering a new way of working.

In many ways, freelancing represents the future of work -- and it's a future that many people welcome. We found that 13.5 million people are already "moonlighting" as freelancers in addition to their day jobs, and that 37 percent of these have considered quitting their job to freelance full-time. That would add millions more full-time freelancers to our workforce.

Freelancing is increasingly a choice people are making because it offers them a better lifestyle, more income, and, in many cases, both. The fact is, the job market is changing, and traditional jobs often provide less security, fewer benefits, and fewer rewards than ever before. In that context, freelancing offers a measure of control over your own fate. So it's no surprise that 63 percent of independent workers started freelancing by choice -- up 10 percentage points (from 53 percent) since 2014, and 79 percent say that freelancing is better than working in a traditional job.

You'd think America's 55 million freelancers, many of whom are business owners themselves, would be a major subject for political discussion in the same way that our 28 million small businesses are. But nothing could be further from the truth. Freelancers get little attention from politicians -- about 70 percent said they've heard little to no discussion about freelancing by the candidates for president. Specifically, freelancers are concerned about issues such as income predictability, debt, and access to credit and other resources. The government does not track data on freelancers well and few policymakers are focused on this growing class of workers and their needs.

Yet most freelancers believe this country needs to talk more about empowering the freelance segment of the workforce--and they're willing to change their votes to support candidates who do. Indeed, 85 percent of freelancers say they are likely to vote in this year's election for president, and their loyalties are still up for grabs: 45 percent support Clinton, 33 percent support Trump, and 21 percent are undecided or voting Libertarian; most say they would consider changing their votes to support a candidate who address their needs. In other words, there are 47 million potential voters which could be won, or lost, by a candidate choosing to interact on issues and ideas that matter to freelancers. In a time of ever-smaller margins of victory in electoral politics, freelancers are a constituency worth engaging. The politicians that learn to speak their language could ride their support to victory.

In short, freelancers are a huge, trillion-dollar economic resource for the U.S., contributing far more than people realize and pursuing careers that they and others increasingly see as more desirable than working for someone else. In a labor market with fewer guarantees than ever before, freelancers offer a glimpse of the future of work.

Yet as a political constituency, freelancers are neglected, and their role in pushing our economy forward is rarely discussed. It's time for that to change.

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Stephane Kasriel is the CEO of Upwork. Sara Horowitz is the founder and executive director of Freelancers Union.

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