Freelancers Happy but Underpaid

There are plenty of freelancers among the ranks of web workers, myself included. The web makes it easy for us to work with clients located all over the place, as well as to make the connections that lead to new clients. But being a web-based freelancer can be isolating: it’s hard to know how you’re doing compared to your peers if you never actually meet them. That’s one reason I was interested to read the 55-page report from FreelanceSwitch with the summary of their survey of 3700 freelancers worldwide.

Among their key findings:

  • An astounding 89% of respondents describe themselves as happier since freelancing.
  • 33% earn more as freelancer than they did full-time. 43% earn less. (The remainder never worked full-time in their industry.)
  • A slight majority – 55% – feel more secure as a freelancer.
  • 45% of respondents are socking away money in a retirement fund, and 65% have health insurance. But the percent with health insurance drop to 31% if you look at North Americans only.
  • Only 10% have business insurance.
  • 85% work at home.
  • Referrals and portfolio web sites are the most popular ways to get work, followed by internet job sites. Only 15% maintain a blog.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from the raw numbers. Indeed, the full report – available for a donation if you didn’t participate in the survey – has some well-done analysis sections, looking at things like the factors that correlate with happiness and income. But before staking too much of your career on this survey, you need to keep two things in mind:

  1. The survey sample was self-selected, since the survey was open to anyone reading the FreelanceSwitch web site. This means that you can’t properly extrapolate the numbers to be representative of some “freelancers as a whole” group. Indeed, looking at some of the results gives hints as to how the numbers might be skewed. For instance, 67% of the respondents are either web designers or graphic designers. This doesn’t make the results invalid, but it does mean that you need to be cautious drawing conclusions.
  2. There’s a strong temptation, when presented with demographics plus numbers on things like happiness and income, to indulge in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. Just because two factors appear to correlate does not mean that one causes the other. You can’t, for example, conclude that freelancing makes people happier just because most freelancers in the survey were happy. It could just as well be that people who are happy are predisposed to freelancing – or that some other factor (owning high-end computers?) predisposes people to both freelance and to be happy.

Of course, I want to believe some of the conclusions that I could leap to from this survey: that freelancers are happy with life even when they’re not drawing in tons of money, for example. But that’s because those things accord with my own prejudices. But at the very least, if you’re on the fence about freelancing, this is a worthwhile collection of data to review. The numbers are large enough to be significant (3700 participants), and the overall picture of the freelance life is rosy – which, after all, is the way that many of us experience it.


Comments have been disabled for this post