Young People Fueling a Pandemic Rise in Freelancing, Report Says

Gen Z may have the highest share of freelancers because of the tough job market for young workers right now.

Gen Z may have the highest share of freelancers because of the tough job market for young workers right now. Shutterstock


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A survey of American workers revealed that young people between ages 18 to 22 are increasingly picking up freelancing.

Coronavirus has undoubtedly shifted the job landscape in America since it became widespread in March. Amid the layoffs, furloughs, and remote work forced by the pandemic, millions more people are now freelancing, according to a new report from Edelman Intelligence, a market research firm.

In the survey commissioned by Upwork, a freelancing platform, 6,000 U.S. workers were asked about their freelance habits from June 2019 to July 2020. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they had freelanced over that year. When applied to the U.S. workforce as a whole, that represents 59 million workers, an increase of two million freelancers over last year.

Many of the freelancers who started work once the pandemic hit were young, between the ages of 18 and 22. Half of Gen Z workers surveyed said they freelanced in the past year, with more than a third of that group starting since the onset of Covid-19. Most of these young workers are freelancing part time and 90% said they were likely to continue after the pandemic is over. 

In comparison, 44% of millennials said they freelanced, along with 30% of Gen Xers and 26% of Baby Boomers.

Gen Z may have the highest share of freelancers because of the tough job market for young workers right now. Unemployment among people aged 16 to 19 rose at nearly double the rate for the general population between February and April. Younger workers were more likely to be laid off at the beginning of the pandemic and were disproportionately represented in service industries that were heavily disrupted by Covid-19 containment measures. Many recent college graduates are relying on unemployment benefits to stay afloat.

In recent years, reports suggested that just 1% of American workers relied full time on gig economy jobs sourced through driving companies like Uber and Lyft, freelancing sites like Upwork, and handyman-for-hire sites like TaskRabbit. One 2019 study said that “despite the ubiquity of Uber and Lyft drivers in our major cities, the gig economy does not currently hold the key to the future of work.” Independent contractors, a term that encompasses more workers than just gig workers, occupied 11% of jobs. 

The new report seems to indicate that more people are turning to full-time freelancing work. Thirty-six percent of freelancers are full time now, compared to 28% last year. In the past 12 months, freelancers contributed $1.2 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy in annual earnings, representing a 22% increase since 2019.

Along with younger workers shifting their focus to freelancing during the pandemic, there was also an increase in freelancing by highly-skilled professionals who provide services like computer programming, graphic design, and marketing consulting. Of those who started freelancing during the pandemic, 54% said they did so due to financial necessity and 75% said they did so to have greater financial stability during the recession. 

At a time many schools and daycares are still closed physically, leaving working parents to balance childcare, virtual schooling, and their jobs, many of the freelancers also said they were drawn to the work by the flexibility. Forty-eight percent of freelancers reported being caregivers, surpassing those in traditional work and the American workforce over all. 

Hayden Brown, President and CEO of Upwork said in a statement that the widespread adoption of remote work for office jobs during the pandemic has fueled more interest in freelancing. 

“It’s no surprise that freelancing is on the rise, especially now that we have fully disentangled ‘where’ we work from ‘what’ we work on,” Brown said. “Amid all of the uncertainty brought about by Covid-19, the data shows that independent professionals are benefiting from income diversification, schedule flexibility, and increased productivity.”

She also said that companies are increasingly turning to freelancers to fill project needs. “We expect this trend to continue as companies increasingly rely on freelancers as essential contributors to their own operations,” she said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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