Article | 18 Dec 2019

How the 2010s became the decade of the freelancer

Posted in Freelancer, Industry news, Learning,

Well, that went fast! Somehow, we have reached the end of another decade and we are about to enter the 2020s… I know, we can’t believe it either. But, despite whizzing by in a flash, a lot has happened in the 2010s and looking back, the world has undergone some huge changes. If the 2000s were characterized by massive excess, followed by a huge reality check in the shape of the credit crunch, then the 2010s have been a time of greater reflection when people have reevaluated what they want out of life and work, and many of us have sought to find a better balance.

Few would argue that freelancing has been one of the big trends of the decade and a clear reflection of the times we live in. Sparked by the recession and the unemployment that followed, the freelancing boom began out of necessity for many people, who found there was a lack of permanent roles available to them. But over the years, more and more have realised that freelancing can, in fact, be more than a ‘plan B’, offering flexibility, freedom and a welcome escape from the rigidity of the nine to five, daily commute and office hierarchies.

So, with that in mind, here is our summary of how the 2010s became the decade of the freelancer:

  • From recession to revolution: Previously seen as a fairly niche way of working, freelancing took off in a big way at the beginning of the decade, as high unemployment meant many professionals were forced to seek alternative means of making a living. Plus, for employers, freelancers proved a valuable source of flexible, cost-effective talent at a time when they were under pressure to cut fixed costs, expand their customer bases, think globally and adapt quickly by bringing on specialist skill sets. These factors combined with the increased desire for work-life balance, created the perfect storm for and as a result, the number of independent professionals started to rise rapidly, growing 12% between 2008 and 2011, and then up by an incredible 47% by 2018. There are currently over two million freelancers in the UK, 1.81 million of whom say freelancing is their main job.
  • Women have led the charge: In particular, we have seen a revolution in female freelancing, with the number of highly skilled independent women rising a massive 63% between 2008 and 2018. Furthermore, freelancing has become an increasingly popular option for working mothers, as many have sought a better way to balance their careers with family responsibilities. The number of solo self-employed mothers has risen by 54% throughout the decade.
  • The rise of talent platforms: Freelancing platforms started to appear in the early 2000s, but they took off in the last decade, connecting millions of independent professionals with potential clients and projects around the world. A joint study from Upwork and Freelancers Union reported that 73% of respondents say finding work is now easier due to technology and between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 26% increase in the number of projects sourced via these platforms. It was also around the middle of the decade that more specialised sites, such as The Work Crowd, started to appear, focusing on higher quality projects and talent, and offering a more bespoke service than their larger, more generalist rivals. Talent platforms have also made it easier for teams of freelancers to come together for bigger, more complex projects.
  • Digital nomads: Apparently the term ‘digital nomad’ was first coined in 1997, but it came into its own in the last decade, as digital technology made it infinitely easier for freelancers to take their work on the road. Defined as somebody who uses technology to conduct their life in a nomadic manner, digital nomads can typically be found traveling  the world, working from cafes and coffee shops in different countries, and a 2018 study by research firm MBO Partners found that 4.8 million US citizens now work this way. Furthermore, a whole community has set up around the trend, driven by sites such as Nomad List and companies like Remote Year, which organises work and travel abroad programmes for remote workers.
  • From home office to coworking space: Coworking and freelancing have gone hand in hand throughout the 2010s, as the rise in entrepreneurialism has led people to seek out more relaxed, informal, collaborative  and dynamic workspaces. Between 2014 and the end of 2018, the number of flexible workspaces expanded by 205% while the number of operators grew by 138%. There are now estimated to be around 35,000 of these flexible workspaces around the world and they have made the choice to go freelance a lot easier for many, enabling solo workers to break free from the home office, to a place where they can meet other freelancers, access a limitless supply of coffee and enjoy a more professional, albeit still relaxed, workplace.
  • Increased rights and regulations for freelancers: As freelancing has become more mainstream throughout the decade, Governments have fought to keep up, both in terms of ensuring that independent professionals are protected against potential exploitation, and also that they pay their fair share of tax. As such, tax rules have tightened, for example the updated IR35 rules will be introduced next year, while the Taylor Review has outlined recommendations for how freelancers and gig workers can be given more legal rights. It is still a work in progress, however, and a trend which will no doubt develop in the coming years.

Looking to the future

On that note, there is still plenty to come in the world of freelancing and numerous new developments are just starting to take hold. For example, we are starting to see more freelancers build on their solo success to work in bigger, more complex teams, and even to create their own microbusinesses. We also anticipate that the freelancing revolution will start to extend more rapidly out of major cities and become a way for those in less populated areas to find satisfying, rewarding and flexible work, supported by ever-improving technology and hyper-local coworking spaces.

And that’s just the beginning. Exciting times ahead!