Freelancing is, according to the headlines (and the studies!) seriously trending. It fuels the economy. A lot of people are doing it. It’s big business. But where it’s big business is often, strangely, left out of the conversation – and so is the fact that for many workers internationally, freelancing isn’t an act of subversion, but rather, one of survival.
When we talk about creative side projects, small businesses, and the gig economy, we tend to focus on the U.S. and the U.K. That’s not surprising; organizations like Elance and the Freelancers Union work largely with English-speaking workers (a recent study of international freelancers found that most Elance jobs go to English-speaking countries or countries where English is an official language, like India), and many of the studies which have been done about freelancing and self-employment have been conducted from the position that working for yourself is a small act of rebellion against cubicle nation, that it’s something workers are opting into. Which is, in part, true.
It’s definitely not the whole story, though.
For some individuals living in developing nations (and even wealthier countries), freelancing and self-employment aren’t alternatives to the traditional workforce – they’re necessary for making a living. According to a Gallup poll from 2014, about 29% of workers internationally are technically self-employed.But, caution the authors of the study, “rather than a positive sign of proactive entrepreneurial energy, high rates of self-employment can often signal poor economic performance.”
“The bulk of the self-employed live in some of the poorest places in the world, where self-employment may be born more out of necessity than opportunity,” explains Gallup. “When economists and opinion leaders talk about the self-employed, the typical example people in the U.S. think of is the freelance professional or contractor who has struck out on their own to succeed on their own terms. They picture an entrepreneur, or at least a plucky individualist. This is indeed a common form of self-employment in more developed economies, but in much of the world, self-employment is more often an alternative to complete poverty.”
In situations where self-employment and freelancing is of economic necessity, it can trap workers. Unlike the freelance jobs we typically consider, which are creative and often come with some form of liberal arts education, workers who are self-employed and living in poverty usually perform tasks that require little in the way of education and have almost no room for expansion, which means that they not only can’t make more money, they also can’t employ anyone else.
“In Brazil, most of the self employed evade payroll taxes and have low education. They are found in small scale businesses which require low skills, thus are unlikely to expand and employ other workers,” writes Renata Narita in a paper for the University College London.
So what’s to be done? First, it’s important that when we talk about freelancing and self-employment, we make it clear what the outstanding economic factors are. Though most of the poorest workers in the developing world are self-employed out of necessity, that pattern is certainly not limited to places outside of the U.S. and the United Kingdom. When we discuss the question of “who broke the job?” it’s pretty apparent that the gig economy was born, at least in the United States, out of the need for quick access to extra income.
This is why it’s still very much a shame that the governing organizations like the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. don’t more seriously include self-employed and freelance workers in their figures; by omitting a large swath of the workforce, they’re making it difficult to examine why and how workers are setting out on their own.
There’s also the matter of education and elevation; those who are self-employed out of necessity often have a high degree of resilience and business sense, but are lacking key skills that can turn their hard work into something more financially rewarding. Access to programs and education which can help workers develop new skills and put them to use can be essential to creating a path out of economic hardship.
Organizations are taking on this work; Nabbesh, a freelance hub in Dubai, specializes in helping local creative talent find ways to make money with their skills, and India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association specifically addresses the need for education and training among women living in poverty.
But still, there is an issue of perception. Clearly understanding the inner workings of poverty, access, and the means that workers utilize to make a living can also help impact policy. It’s important to talk about freelancing and self-employment as a choice, but it’s just as crucial to talk about it when it’s not.
“While some of the self-employed choose their work and life purposely, many are forced into it because they cannot find a good job with a reliable employer,” writes Gallup. “These different types of self-employed workers mean different things for the countries and economies they work in, and call for different policy responses from national and world leaders.”