Papers, policy and conferences: How the CRSE are changing the way we think about self-employment

The gig economy. It’s probably the one aspect of self-employment you can guarantee the man (or woman) in the street has heard of. It’s a phrase you struggle to avoid in today’s media. Beyond that, however, the average person just doesn’t know that much about self-employment. The shocking thing we found, however, is nor do most policymakers!

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Professor Andrew Burke in full flow at the ISBE conference

The why and the what of the CRSE

That’s why the CRSE (Centre for Research on Self-employment) was set up: to bring together a community of worldwide academics to challenge unfounded narratives and help policymakers understand what’s really going on with self-employment in the UK and beyond. Essentially to inject a strong dose of reality and research into public discourse on self-employment. And last month, we took a major step in the right direction with the launch of a new track on Freelancing, Solo Self-Employment and Gig Economy Working at the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) research conference.

The series of talks was a runaway success, with packed rooms and far more papers submitted than we expected. And the papers we accepted shed light on a huge range of different aspects of self-employment: from the physical and mental health of the self-employed to career development and the reasons freelancers started working for themselves in the first place.

The other big success, of course, was having two of the leading lights in self-employment studies chair the track: Professor Marc Cowling from Brighton Business School and Professor Andrew Burke from Trinity College Dublin – who is also the Chair of the CRSE. The aim of the track is to bring together self-employment researchers from across UK and beyond and help them extend their research and heighten its impact.

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Professor Marc Cowling

Papers papers everywhere

Having the track at the ISBE conference was essentially a way of furthering the CRSE’s aim of pushing the reach of research and getting policymakers to understand the true nature of the self-employed sector. That could be understanding how to improve conditions for freelancers, grasping the impact they have on the economy or, very simply, getting to grips with the work freelancers actually do. And the CRSE has done plenty more towards that than just the ISBE track.

One of our most important reports this year was ‘The Way to Wellbeing: A multidimensional strategy for improving the wellbeing of the self-employed’. Written by Professor Martin Binder, it considers what exactly defines wellbeing for the self-employed in all areas of their lives – from their jobs and incomes to their families and leisure time. The result? Another insightful report that sheds light on an area no-one else is examining. 

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The CRSE's reports will keep on coming

Also this year was the CRSE’s report on freelancers in the construction sector. Produced in partnership with Hudson Contract, it was called: “The Economic Role of Freelance Workers in the Construction Industry”. By analysing construction sector firms in 2010, 2013 and 2017, the authors, Professor Andrew Burke and Dr Samuel Vigne, uncovered exactly how the extremely large freelance construction workforce supports the sector. The evidence for how the flexibility of freelancers maintains this sector has been vital for understanding other sectors, and has been used in a lot of IPSE analysis.

Perhaps the CRSE’s biggest achievement so far, its November 2017 True Diversity of Self-Employment report, was also still making waves this year. This extensive analysis breaks down the self-employed sector into nine distinct segments, defined by levels of independence, security and job satisfaction. Not only has it been referred to in the DWP’s Auto-Enrolment Review, it was also used for leading think tank Demos’s ‘Free Radicals’ report. And to top it off, HR Magazine ran a three-page feature dedicated to its findings.

Changing minds one report at a time

That’s the CRSE then: the track at ISBE’s research conference was only the tip of the iceberg of all we’re doing to spread understanding about freelancing and self-employment in the 21st Century. Our reports and research are making waves in government, the press and think tanks across the country. And as for the future? Things are set to get even more exciting for us. In the new year we’ll be launching a review of case studies to examine the role of freelancers in the 21st Century – and of course looking into plenty of new opportunities to extend the reach and impact of self-employment research!

Meet the author

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Chloe Jepps

Head of Research

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