Empowering the Freelance Economy

Freelancers aren’t who you think finds new report

The profile of the average freelancer in the UK isn't who you think/ Photo by Karolina Grabowska via Pexels
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Original reporting by Toby McInnis

For the majority of us, the word “freelancer” evokes an image of a young person tapping away on their laptop in an overpriced coffee shop. But recently published data suggests this is far from reality, according to a new study by MoneyTransfers.com. With this evidence unearthed, it goes to show a lot is being incorrectly assumed about freelancers and contractors, which begs the question, is this why worker status policies influenced by HMRC could be doing more harm than good to the economy?

What is the profile of the average freelancer in the UK?

The study has analysed a range of research on the UK’s freelance and self-employed community – and it tells a strikingly different story about both the average demographics of freelancers, and what is driving the growing cultural popularity of “being your own boss”.

  • Roughly 71% of the UK’s freelancers are aged 40 or above, and the overall average age of a UK freelancer is 48
  • There are nearly twice as many UK freelancers aged 60+ than 29 or younger
  • A desire for greater autonomy, flexibility and work-life balance contribute to the popularity of freelancing amongst older workers

Freelancing enables older workers to pay the bills and be carers

Overall, there are roughly 2.2 million full-time freelancers in the UK – contributing £162 billion to the national economy. However, despite the apparent popularity of lifestyle movements like “digital nomadism”, just 11% of full-time UK freelancers are aged 16-29. 

In contrast, 24% of freelancers are aged 40-49; 26% are aged 50-59, and 21% are aged 60 or over. And while the proportion of younger freelancers has risen very slightly since COVID-19 – 2% increase in 16-29 years – this still paints a markedly different picture from the prevailing image of the freelance world.

Digital isn’t the only way to freelance

So why is there such a contrast between popular ideas about freelancing and reality? One explanation is that we overestimate the importance of digital platforms – and rely on survey data from those digital platforms. 

One recent study – undertaken by a digital payment provider – claimed that the majority of freelancers were young. But it based this claim on the fact that it had used its own user base for the (very small) survey sample; it then concluded that, because most of its respondents were young, they must be representative of the larger population.

While digital is a huge factor for many freelancers and has unlocked transformative global opportunities, the infrastructure it provides is far from essential. People were freelancing long before digital marketplaces or social media – and it is likely that a disproportionate number of those not using such platforms are indeed older workers.

To gain a more accurate image, we have to look at large-scale household surveys that capture the entire economy – and that is where we see this overwhelming skew towards older freelancers.

Older workers want more flexibility

Another reason we may assume younger people are more inclined to freelance is that we associate such work with freedom and autonomy – and see these may be seen as youthful values. But research from PwC has shown that the desire to work independently actually increases with age, owing to a preference for flexible work situations and a good work/life balance. 

Older people are more likely to have caring responsibilities – 16% of the UK’s freelancers are working mothers. They are also more likely to have savings to get them through dry periods; a strong professional network to draw clients from; and the extensive experience and high value skill sets required to charge top fees.

The fact that older people are more likely to freelance comes as a shock – but also perhaps a comfort. For example: concerns about ageing populations creating an economic burden upon the young may be eased, as research has shown that freelancers are more willing to work beyond retirement age.

Jonathan Merry, CEO of MoneyTransfers.com

1 Comment
  1. Stephen Furnell says

    Ageism is recognised as being rife in industry and people above certain age (eg. 55+ or 60+) will be overlooked by companies despite their expertise. One explanation given “ we have to hire younger people to ensure the long term resourcing of our Company”. This can then force older people into becoming Freelancers.

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