Stories

The two-faced freelance economy

Illustration of a small person at a giant iphone screen with a dollar bill on it, and a person behind the iphone in the dark
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some freelancers can pull in more than $100 an hour for management consulting, programming or graphic design. Others struggle to make much more than $10 an hour, beholden to "gig work" platforms like Uber or TaskRabbit.

Why it matters: Being one's own boss, with the flexibility it brings, can be lucrative for people who can differentiate themselves from competitors. For the rest, it can be quicksand.

The big picture: Freelance work makes up nearly 5% of U.S. GDP, according to a new study commissioned by Upwork, a site for high-earning freelancers to find jobs. And more people than ever — 28.5 million people, or half the freelance workforce — say it's a long-term plan.

  • Freelancers who are "significantly better than average" at their jobs tend to do well, says Stephane Kasriel, Upwork's CEO. "Stronger pros can really dictate their terms."
  • Gig work apps capitalized on this dream to attract millions to their platforms: Work whenever you want to make some spending money on the side, they promised.

But for those without a rare or standout skill, reality hasn't quite panned out that way.

  • "People turn to this work, but it's not as lucrative as they think it's going to be," says Alexandrea Ravenelle, a UNC professor who interviewed dozens of workers for her recent book, "Hustle and Gig."
  • "I'm finding a considerable number of workers end up turning to gig work, they think, for the short term — and they're still doing it 4 years later," Ravenelle says. There's no time to network or send out resumes when you're spending every working moment hunting for the next job.

The bottom line: "Given that being in the traditional workforce typically comes with benefits and protections, I think most workers would be better off being there rather than having to constantly hustle for the next gig," says Ravenelle.