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Contently Study: The State of Freelancing in 2015

By Jordan Teicher June 22nd, 2015

I think we’re almost at the point where we don’t need to put quotation marks around the words “traditional job” anymore. Almost. Some people make their money in an office; others take care of business at their home desks. Over the last few years, more and more freelancers of all kinds have charted a new professional path without cubicles, water-cooler talk, and rigid schedules. But for such a large group of professionals, it still seems like not a lot of people—even freelancers themselves—know what the self-employed landscape looks like. It’s time for that to change.

As the freelance community continues to emerge as a major force in the global economy, it’s important for both workers and hirers to know what makes freelancers tick. How can we learn more about a professional field that is so varied? What are the common bonds among people who work on different projects for different clients across different industries? What, if anything, is consistent about the freelance community?

We decided to survey our readers to check the pulse of the freelance community and economy. Here’s what we found.

Methodology

From May 28 to June 10, we surveyed 643 freelancers about their work habits, career goals, and opinions of the freelance industry at large. The survey consisted of 25 questions.

Demographics

About 82 percent of respondents identified as writers, while consultants and content strategists accounted for close to eight percent. Photographers, designers, videographers, illustrators, and people who identified as hybrids made up the remaining 10 percent.

Key Findings

People can agree that the freelance economy is changing, but thus far, nobody seems to really know what that change will look like. Judging by the data we collected, there are some significant gaps in how respondents view the freelance industry as a whole relative to their individual careers.

Before you dive in to the meat of the analysis, here a few of the most important takeaways:

  • Two-thirds of respondents are in it for the long haul, saying they plan on freelancing for 10+ years.
  • 65 percent of respondents believe their life as a freelancer has improved over the last year.
  • However, 35 percent of respondents expect freelancing to get more difficult in the next decade.
  • 68 percent would be interested in joining an official union for freelancers if it were legal for freelancers to unionize.
  • When we asked respondents if they would accept a traditional full-time job in their field, more than two-thirds said they’d either consider or accept it.
  • The median income for all respondents is $10,001–$20,000. A little over 19 percent of respondents made more than $50,000 last year, including about five percent who earned six figures.

Results and Analysis

Money talks, so let’s start the conversation there. The median income for all respondents, which only counts freelance earnings, is between $10,001 and $20,000. When only looking at full-time freelancers, median income jumps up one interval to between $20,001 and $30,000.

The mean freelance income in our survey was about $30,000, but takes into account the five percent of respondents who made at least $100,000.

For a point of comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage in the U.S. a year ago was $47,230. (For writers and editors, that number was actually $66,990, although lumping writers and editors together creates a very, very wide umbrella.)

As we dive into the rest of the data below, why freelance earnings are relatively low will become somewhat clearer.

As the chart above demonstrates, a few different types of freelancers filled out this survey. Though the data here is straightforward, it demonstrates why it’s so difficult to capture how the freelance community feels about anything. These three subsections all identify as freelancers even though their professional perspectives and desires vary to a large degree.

The 40-hour workweek may not be dead yet, but it’s definitely dying. For some, that means working more; a 2014 Gallup poll found that the average full-time American employee works 47 hours per week. Bur for the majority of freelancers, that means working less.

Just under two-thirds of respondents are working on freelance projects fewer than 30 hours per week, while only about 18 percent are working over 40 hours. When controlling the results to only include full-time freelancers, the numbers change a bit—28 percent of freelancers work between 31 and 40 hours per week. But 46 percent of the full-time respondents still work fewer than 30 hours per week. The key question is whether freelancers are choosing to work fewer hours or whether they’re forced to work less (and get paid less) than they would like, due to factors our of their control.

So after looking at income and hours, we wanted to examine output. Are freelancers working on a lot of projects with lower rates? Or a few projects with higher rates? Or somewhere in between?

Almost half of respondents are only working on two or fewer projects per week. When controlling for only full-timers, that number does drop to 34 percent, but even though the most committed freelancers may be picking up a few more jobs per week, that still may not be enough work for a sustainable career.

The issue goes beyond just the quantity of work. Someone can pick up two assignments per week that each pay $1,000 and have an extremely lucrative career. But judging by the existing information we have about average pay rates, that’s usually not the case for most self-employed creatives. For example, when we published user-generated data related to our rates database, we found that writers working off of flat rates made an average of about $350 for print stories, and even less for digital work. And even though per-word rates can lead to bigger paydays, there were more than three times as many flat rates as per-word rates. So the data suggests most freelancers either need to do whatever they can to take on more work at current rates or take on new high-paying clients—both easier said than done.

Building on the analysis above, we wanted to explore actively freelancers pursued new clients. Freelancers are essentially small business owners, and for businesses to succeed over time, they need to grow. However, as many freelancers know, it’s easy to get complacent with the projects in front of you. Fortunately, this data shows that freelancers seem to be putting an emphasis on new work, with an impressive 83 percent of respondents attempting to add new clients at least once per quarter, and 62 percent pursuing new clients on at least a monthly basis.

The 10 percent of respondents who said that they never pursue new clients is perplexing. You might expect that chunk of people to be making a lot of money off of referral work, but, surprisingly, more than half of the respondents who never pursue new clients earned less than $20,000 in the last year.

One of the main problems for freelancers right now is they have very little professional protection. So much communication and invoicing is handled online, making it possible for clients to ignore freelancers and delay payment without any accountability. And since freelancers aren’t legally allowed to unionize, freelancers won’t be able to fight for their rights collectively in the near future.

However, more than two-thirds of respondents were in favor of an official union for freelancers. It will definitely take time, patience, and luck for freelancers to get a union in the future, but it’s noteworthy that there’s at least widespread support; a governing body or group that can advocate for freelancer rights may prove crucial in the fight for stable wages across the freelance economy. Freelancers have strength in numbers, and a union could be a powerful way to take advantage of that strength.

With wages that fall below the national average in America, you might expect most freelancers to be less than optimistic when it came time to project how long they’d be self-employed. Surprisingly, the opposite turned out to be true.

During my time as a full-time freelance writer, I viewed the freelance economy as a weigh station, a place for people to develop enough skills and contacts and clips to take their talents to an office job that came with consistent income and job security. But it’s a promising sign that more than two-thirds of those surveyed want to freelance long term. This attitude is arguably the most important takeaway from our survey. Why? Because widespread commitment will make it easier for freelancers to be taken seriously by the people who hire and compensate them.

Think of it this way: Employees in most traditional jobs need more than a year or two to thrive. The more experience they have, the more money they make, and the more qualified they are for promotions and new opportunities. In this respect, freelancing is no different. Those who stay around long term will be in the best position to charge the highest rates and secure the best assignments.

Even though most respondents expect to freelance for more than 10 years, they seem to be split on how tough the next decade will be for the self-employed. We gave people the chance to provide an open-ended response to this question, and the consensus touched on two common elements: more opportunities and more competition.

As finance and business writer Dan Weil put it: “Plenty of opportunities, but the pay’s unlikely to go up much, if at all.”

The general tone from the comments could best be described as cautiously guarded. A lot of responses hit on the idea that quality could suffer if too many inexperienced freelancers flood the market at the same time. And as a result, compensation would fall as well.

“I think freelancing will become more of a norm, but as such, will have more competition,” said business technology writer Jeff Morgan. “Clients will be more open and in search of talent, but there will be more competitors clamoring for work. Fingers crossed that quality—and not price—will dictate the market.”

One common perception of freelancers is that they enjoy the hustle of finding their own work, but when we asked them to make a decision on whether or not to leave self-employment for a more traditional job, more than two-thirds (68 percent) would at least consider giving up their freelance careers for a full-time job with benefits, including almost one-third of respondents who would definitely accept. Those stats really clash with some of the other trends of the survey, namely that two-thirds of freelancers want to continue doing so for at least a decade. Also, when we asked the survey population to evaluate their careers, approximately two-thirds reported that life as a freelancer improved over the year year.

So if freelancers want to stay around, and they believe their careers are improving, why would a majority of them think about taking a more traditional job? The next chart sheds some light on specific factors.

It’s no secret that every job comes with difficult challenges and trade-offs. But for freelancers, those challenges seem to be magnified since the individual bears so much responsibility for their success or failure. When we asked people to identify their biggest daily obstacles, respondents pointed to securing enough work (34 percent) and time management (26 percent) most often. I think it’s important to make a distinction between day-to-day issues and big-picture issues. Freelancers will always want to make more money, and I believe most would agree that the typical rates being offered make it tough for self-employed creatives to earn enough money to thrive without sacrificing their sanity and free time.

But when freelancers are grinding away at home every day—over 85 percent said they do most of their work at home—financial hurdles aren’t always top of mind. The effort required to chase down assignments, and the lack of boundaries on what constitutes a work day, challenges freelancers more than cash flow issues. Without a set number of hours each week, that professional uncertainty is pervasive, and as many of our readers already know, the energy required to maintain a consistent workload can be exhausting.


Despite the challenges outlined in the previous section, there are plenty of worthwhile aspects of freelancing. Pay may not typically be one of them—although five percent of respondents earned over $100,000 in the last year—but freelancers seem very pleased with the amount of freedom they have in their professional lives. There’s a sense of control that’s hard to find in a traditional job.

The top three answers were: setting their own schedules (39 percent), choosing engaging work (25 percent), and being able to work from home (19 percent).

Interestingly, most of the people who answered “Other” (eight percent) chimed in that they wished they could have selected “All of the above.” It was easier for them to pick out the biggest challenge than the biggest benefit, which is an intriguing nuance of the study, as if the best part about freelancing is the entire lifestyle. As we move forward, that lifestyle is what’s drawing more people to self-employment, even if rates stagnate or drop.

Conclusion

It looks like 2015 is shaping up to be the nexus of how we understand the freelance economy. Freelancers seem to be more comfortable managing their time and dealing with clients, but there are still some important gaps and complexities worth tracking in the future. Will there be more high-quality jobs that come with higher rates? Or will a flood of competition make it harder for existing freelancers to earn enough money to support themselves and their families?

There’s uncertainty, for sure, but with that uncertainty comes opportunity. As freelancers figure out how to fit into an ever-changing economy, they will hopefully start to be viewed as valued parts of the creative process,rather than just cheap alternatives. They’ll think about how they can work smarter, live better, and make more money. There probably aren’t easy solutions to these issues, but, if anything, at least we’re starting to ask the right questions.

 

Image by Ivelin Radkov/Shutterstock
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