The U.S. Job Market Is Bouncing Back, But Where Are the Creatives?

Image via <a href="" target="_blank">Bells Design</a>
Image via Bells Design

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its May jobs report this morning, to loud cries of celebration — technically speaking, the U.S. economy has added back all of the jobs lost in the recession. However, the picture of American employment is very different than it was in 2007, though you might not know it from looking at the BLS numbers. As always, the work of freelancers, the self-employed, and gig economists is buried somewhere in the numbers.

How can we quantify the role of bootstrapping part-timers and creative entrepreneurs when that kind of work is largely considered non-existent by conventional labor metrics?

As our Creative Jobs Report found last spring, more and more workers in the U.S. are increasingly opting out of traditional career trajectories, instead choosing self-employment and creative work over — which is often part-time and, in many cases, off-the-books — full-time work. None of that is reflected clearly (or, in some cases, at all) by BLS numbers, which show the unemployment rate unchanged at 6.3 percent, and employment increases in “professional and business services, health care and social assistance, food services and drinking places, and transportation and warehousing.”

The only measurements that even comes close in the BLS report are that of the “partially employed” and the “marginally attached,” which are persons who are not fully employed, but also not currently collecting unemployment or reporting that they’ve been looking for work. The BLS doesn’t ask if they actually are working part time, either in contract roles or as freelancers — and when they say that these individuals aren’t “currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them,” what it could mean is that they aren’t currently looking for full-time employment because the full-time, traditional labor market just isn’t for them.

When creatives, entrepreneurs,  makers, and does do work full-time, BLS-counted jobs, they often pick companies that are more in line with their personal missions — and even those are hard to quantify.

“Community college students who become app developers — to the tune of $72,000 per year — make for a good story. But are the disruptive technology companies we love — and love to hate —helping create enough jobs to turn the economy around?” asks Ainsley O’Connell at Fast Company, “Based on how the government categorizes jobs, it’s hard to say.”

“Technology is a ‘horizontal’ across these industries, and can enable new opportunities,” O’Connell writes, ‘but as Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler found in “Pixel and Dimed,” the promise of income from the technology-enabled gig economy is often prettier than the reality.

The problem of the missing freelancers isn’t a new one; in a 2013 piece of Forbes, guest blogger Jeff Ward wrote that he believed most BLS statistics were simply less indicative of overall employment and economic health than that of the freelance economy.

“There is one statistic that I believe is even more indicative of the current and future job market—the state of the freelance market,” Wald wrote, pointing out the fact that “The number of freelance workers is projected to outpace full-time workers by 2020.”

For an accurate picture of the total economic status of the nation, including freelancers, creatives, and everyone who operates on the fringe of the BLS jobs report, you have to look elsewhere, like American Express’s 2014 Women-Owned Business Report, or Etsy Sellers Economic Impact study — both of which found that, in the time it’s taken for the traditional economy to bounce back and regain all of its lost jobs, creatives, crafters, entrepreneurs, and artists have been busy making their own way in the world.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.