Freelancing in a post-pandemic world: Is the gig economy a good place to go?

Maybe the typical 9-to-5 job isn’t working for you.

Maybe you’re a college grad looking for a variety of experience to kickstart your career.

Maybe you want more flexibility to move across the country.

Maybe you need a better work/life balance.

Or maybe the pandemic has upended your career and you’re looking for a viable alternative—one you can more easily control.

If any of these describe you, you might consider becoming a freelancer.

In a day of exploding technology and a diverse workforce, freelancing as a career is not as unrealistic or impractical as once thought. The Freelance Forward 2020 study comissioned by Upwork found that 59 million Americans freelanced in 2020 (+2M from the previous year), which accounted for 36% of the U.S. workforce.

Upwork’s Freelance Forward 2020 key findings infographic.

How the pandemic impacted the freelance workforce

During the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, 10% of the U.S. workforce paused freelancing, while 12% of the U.S. workforce—seeing an opportunity to increase financial stability—began freelancing in 2020.

The overwhelming majoirty of new freelancers reported positive financial results from their career shift. During an uncertain year, the flexibility of their work allowed freelancers to weather the storm better than traditional workers.

Shifting tides

According to the 2019 Freelancing in America report commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork, “For the first time, as many freelancers view freelancing as a long-term career choice as they do a temporary way to make money (50% each).”

With this perspective shift came a demographic shift, as half the Gen Z workforce freelanced in the previous year, many beginning their foray into independent work during the pandemic.

In a previous Freelancing in America survey, researchers found that “full-time freelancers feel overwhelmingly positive about their work: they are significantly more likely than non-freelancers to feel respected, engaged, empowered, and excited to start each day.”

The future of freelancing

While the 2019 study found that 59% of freelancers say they feel like they are living paycheck-to-paycheck (compared with 53% of non-freelancers), the overwhelming majoirty of survey participants nevertheless affirm their confidence that the best days are ahead for freelancing.

In fact, 58% of traditional workers are considering freelance work in the future, citing increased productivity, extra income, and remote work as reasons for a career change.

No doubt, the independent workforce represents a growing sector of the economy and a viable way to work on your own terms, but not if you jump in blind. Before taking the plunge into the gig economy, first consider a few key questions.

What is the market like for your skillset?

An article from Harvard Business Review (HBR) recommends assessing “how well established you are in your field and how in-demand your skills are,” both in times of plenty and in recession. If you’d be out of the job as soon as everyone tightens their belts, maybe freelancing is too big a risk for you.

What are your financial constraints?

HBR suggests that people who have a monetary cushion or fewer financial responsibilities are in a better position to start freelancing full time. Alternatively, freelancing could be a side gig or a means to bring in extra unneeded income.

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Do you have a support structure?

Founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, Sara Horowitz, recommends having a trusted inner circle of fellow freelancers, or even just family and friends, who you can turn to for advice and support.

Are you personally suited to the gig economy?

If you’re someone who values stability and working on a team, then a traditional job may suit you best. If you’re a highly motivated individual who prioritizes variety, flexibility, and self-determination, chances are that office job isn’t your dream job. This Leadership IQ quiz is a unique way of assessing how compatible you are to the freelancing life.

Additionally, over 50% of the Upwork survey particpants said soft skills—such as interpersonal communication—were very important to their work, as were business skills. To stay in-demand and above the competition, ongoing skill development training is a huge part of the freelance career.

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Give time and careful thought to these questions and any other concerns you have about the transition to independent work. Make sure you cover your bases, but don’t leave too much room for hesitation. At some point, you may simply have to take the leap.

This blog post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated with the most current data available.

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