Who are they?
This first section looks at the UK’s solo self-employed population. These are people who are running their own business, operating as a sole trader or in a partnership and do not have any employees.
This report looks at data from the Labour Force Survey from the second quarter of 2020, 2019 and 2008. This year, unlike previous years, we have seen a decrease in the solo self-employed population of five per cent compared to 2019 – down to 4.4 million people. We already know, too, that this figure has continued to drop in the second half of 2020.8
Since 2008 the sector has seen consistent growth, largely driven by the expansion of the freelance sector. Freelancers are a subsection of the solo self-employed who are working in highly skilled managerial, professional and technical occupations; this includes occupations from lawyers and accountants, doctors and scientist, writers and designers to high level managers and directors, to list a few. Unlike the solo self-employed population as a whole, freelancers have managed to maintain their numbers with a small increase of one per cent between 2019 and 2020. However, as we will explore in the later sections of this report, not all groups of freelancers have continued to thrive.
The skill profile of the UK’s solo self-employed is based on the Standard Occupational Classifications (SOCs), an internationally recognised system that classifies occupations according to the skill level required for them. There are currently nine major levels of SOC codes ranging from managers, directors and senior officials at the top end to elementary occupations in SOC9, which generally require a minimum level of education.
All SOC groups have seen decreases in solo self-employed people between 2019 and 2020 apart from the higher skilled SOCs 2 and 3. SOC2, including professional occupations saw a modest increase of two per cent between 2019 and 2020 and SOC3, including freelancers working in associate and technical occupations saw a small increase of three per cent.
These increases have led to the top three occupational categories making up a larger proportion of the overall UK solo self-employed. In 2020 SOCs 1-3 now account for 49 per cent of the overall population, up three percentage points from previous years. These include managers and directors, as well as both professional and technical occupations. People in these three categories are also, on average, educated to a higher level.
Looking at SOCs 4-9, the group that has seen the largest decrease over the last year was SOC8 which includes process, plant and machine operatives which decreased by a fifth (-20%) equivalent to over 90,000 individuals. This is in direct contrast to the previous year where SOC8 saw the highest increase between 2018 and 2019 with a 16 per cent rise.
The group with the highest number of solo self-employed people remains SOC5 and includes skilled trades occupations ranging from construction and agriculture to textiles and food preparation. This group accounts for 23 per cent of the total solo self-employed population. However, it is also the group that has seen the second highest absolute drop in numbers, after SOC8, decreasing in size by 85,000 individuals (-8%) between 2019 and 2020.
Perhaps surprisingly SOC7, which includes sales and customer service occupations, saw the smallest decrease out of all the groups that diminished in size, seeing just a three per cent drop, equivalent to 2,000 individuals. This group is however the only group that has seen a decrease over the last 12 years reducing in size by a fifth overall (-21%).
In the one to nine major SOC groups there are 90 minor occupational groups. Looking closely at these can give a more detailed understanding of the kinds of roles solo self-employed people are working in.
Similar to previous years, the highest proportion of the UK’s solo self-employed are working in the construction and building trades (405,000), in artistic, literary and media occupations (299,000), as road transport drivers (261,000), and in agricultural and related trades (175,000). However, three of these groups have seen a reduction in size between 2019 and 2020. Those working in construction and building trades have decreased by eight per cent, as road transport drivers by 20 per cent, and those working in agricultural and related trades have reduced by 18 per cent.
The gender distribution of the UK’s self-employed workforce remains uneven but the small shift in favour of women that we saw in the last report has continued this year. The overall solo self-employed population is now 62 per cent male and 38 per cent female reflecting a two-percentage point increase in the proportion of women compared to 2019.
There is a more even gender distribution in the higher occupational categories (SOC1 to SOC3) and again, women have seen a two-percentage point increase between 2019 and 2020. Women now make up 44 per cent of freelancers with the remaining 56 per cent made up of men.
The reason for this change in the proportion of women and men has been largely due to a smaller drop in the number of solo self-employed women compared to men. Overall, there was a drop of seven percent in the number of men compared to only a one per cent drop in women. Furthermore, looking at the highly skilled freelancers (SOCs 1-3) women actually saw an increase of six per cent compared to a three per cent drop in men.
Men continue to dominate in most of the occupational categories, however there are higher proportions of women in medium skilled occupations such as SOC4 (administrative and secretarial occupations – 80% female) and SOC6 (caring, leisure and other service occupations, including hairdressing and housekeeping – 85% female).
The lowest proportion of females can be found in SOC8 (process, plant and machine operatives – 11% female) and SOC5 (skilled trades occupations – 11%). The fact that men dominate the largest occupational groups explains the continued overall gender imbalance in the solo self-employed population.
In the UK there are now a total of 605,000 solo self-employed mothers, just over half of whom are working in SOC1 to SOC3 occupations. This means that one in seven of all solo self-employed people are now working mothers.9
In line with the overall drop in solo self-employed females, the number of solo self-employed mothers decreased by one per cent between 2019 and 2020. Mothers are most likely to be working in SOC3 (associate professional and technical occupational groups – 158,000) SOC6 (caring, leisure and other service occupations including caring, leisure and travel – 130,000), and SOC2 (professional occupations – 123,000).
The number of solo self-employed mothers in SOCs 2 and 3 saw impressive increases between 2019 and 2020 of 12 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively. However, there were large declines in SOC7, sales and customer services occupations (-34%) and SOC5, skilled trade occupations (-22%).
There was also a nine per cent drop in the number of solo self-employed mothers working in the highest occupational group SOC1 which includes managers, directors, and senior officials. This despite an overall increase of five per cent in the number of females working in SOC1 between 2019 and 2020.
The average age of the UK’s solo self-employed remains the same as in 2019 at 47 years old. Similar to 2019, the largest age groups in 2020 are 50-59 years (1,103,000) and 40-49 years (1,009,000) and. Combined, these two groups account for almost 50 per cent of the whole solo self-employed population (48%).
The smallest proportion of the solo self-employed workforce remains the 16-29 age group which accounts for just 11 per cent of the sector. This group has also seen the largest proportional drop in numbers between 2019 and 2020, reducing by 11 per cent which is equivalent to over 60,000 individuals.
In fact, all age groups decreased in size between 2019 and 2020 apart from the 30-39-year-old age group which remained stable. One of the largest groups, those aged 40-49 dropped by seven per cent, equivalent to almost 74,000 individuals.
The story is slightly different when looking at the highly skilled freelancers in SOCs 1-3 which will be explored in the second part of this report.
Length of time in self-employment
Looking at the length of time the UK solo self-employed have been self-employed reveals that over a quarter have been working this way for over ten years. Self-employment is clearly something people enter for the long run – and previous research shows that the main reasons people become self-employed are for the freedom and flexibility it provides and very few enter self-employment because they could not find other employment.10 11
At the other end of the scale, one in seven people (15%) highlighted that they had become self-employed between 2019 and 2020, equating to almost 591,000 individuals. This is somewhat worrying as most of these people will not have been eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) as they would not have submitted a 2018-19 tax return, a requirement to be able to access the scheme. The number of people unable to access the scheme because they were new to self-employment may be even higher than this as these figures only report those who are still self-employed in Q2 2020. Data from HMRC estimated the number of self-employed people who were not able to access SEISS, for a variety of reasons, at 1.6 million.12
The number of solo self-employed people in the UK who were considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010 has been increasing year on year since 2013. We know from IPSE’s 2018 report ‘Making self-employment work for disabled people’ that these individuals were on the whole choosing self-employment for positive reasons including better job satisfaction and improved working conditions and to enable them to work effectively around their disability.13
After large growth in 2019, this year’s figures show that there has been an eight per cent drop in the number of self-employed disabled people. This is compared to disabled employees who have seen a three per cent increase during the same period (2019 to 2020).
The decrease has been driven by males who have seen a drop of 16 per cent between 2019 and 2020 equivalent to almost 62,000 people. The age group that has seen the highest drop is those over 60 years of age; this group has seen a 16 per cent decrease between 2019 and 2020 equivalent to over 31,000 people.
The Labour Force Survey asks people to indicate whether they were claiming any state benefits or tax credits during a specific one-week period in the quarter. Looking at the Q2 2020 data we can see that there were huge increases in the number of solo self-employed people claiming Universal Credit and income support between 2019 and 2020.
The number of solo self-employed people claiming Universal Credit rose by 341 per cent between 2019 and 2020. One reason for this could be that those unable to access the government support schemes available for self-employed people were encouraged to apply for Universal Credit. The government also introduced a temporary suspension of the minimum income floor for Universal Credit which historically made it very difficult for many self-employed people to access Universal Credit because of their naturally fluctuating income levels.
Similarly, the number of solo self-employed people claiming income support rose by 335 per cent although the absolute number remains low at 12,000.
The solo self-employed continue to be found in all regions of the UK, but they remain mostly concentrated in the South East (22%), Greater London (18%) and the South West (9%). Together, these areas account for almost half of the entire sector.
Between 2019 and 2020 most of the areas of the UK saw a decline in the number of solo self-employed people. The only two areas that saw increases were the East Midlands whose solo self-employed population rose by four per cent and Northern Ireland whose population rose by an impressive 17 per cent to over 123,000 people.
The three regions that have seen the biggest declines in their solo self-employed populations between 2019 and 2020 all saw a decrease of 10 per cent. These include Yorkshire and the Humber (drop of 34,000 individuals), the East of England (drop of 17,000 individuals) and Wales (drop of 19,000 individuals).
The highly skilled freelance workforce
Freelancers are a subset of the solo self-employed population who are working in the top three highest skilled occupational categories (SOC1 to SOC3). This includes managers and directors, professionals and associate/technical professionals.
In 2020 there are now almost 2.2 million freelancers in the UK, up a small one percent from 2019. Of these over 1.9 million state that freelancing is their main job with a further 239,000 people doing freelancing as a side hustle alongside other employment.
Due to the small increase in freelancers between 2019 and 2020 and the larger drop in the overall solo self-employed population (-5%), the number of freelancers as a proportion of wider population has increased by three percentage points from 46 per cent to 49 per cent. Therefore, highly skilled freelancers now make up almost half of the 4.4 million solo self-employed in the UK.
Research has shown that freelancers play a vital role in the economy by driving innovation and providing greater flexibility and efficiency. This, in turn, has led directly to a boost in economic output as the freelance sector has grown.14
There are no official statistics directly measuring freelancers’ contribution to the economy. It is, however, possible to provide a speculative estimate. If freelancers’ contribution to turnover is proportionate to their presence in the wider group of businesses without employees, their collective sales would be approximately £146bn. That equates to 46 per cent of the £316bn contributed by the UK’s wider solo self-employed workforce.
This figure could be even higher as freelancer-owned businesses may be expected to generate greater revenues than businesses in the lower skilled occupational categories because of their level of knowledge and skill. Their contribution to the UK economy in 2020 could even be as high as £162bn.
The largest group of freelancers, accounting for 845,000 people or 39 per cent of freelancers, are those working in associate and technical occupations (SOC3). This group contains a wide range of occupations including artists, writers, health associates, designers, sales and marketing professionals and business and financial associate professionals. This group has seen a three per cent increase in the last year and a 35 per cent increase since 2008.
Another freelancer group that has seen increases in the last year is SOC2 which includes freelancers working in professional occupations and has increased by two per cent to 784,000 individuals.
SOC1 – including freelancers working in managerial occupations – in contrast, has seen a four per cent decrease, equivalent to 20,000 people and now amounts to a total of 528,000 people.
Looking at the occupational categories in more detail reveals that various occupations have been affected differently over the last year.
Looking at the top occupations identified in the 2019, artistic, literary and media occupations remains the largest group and has remained stable between 2019 and 2020 continuing to account for 16 per cent of all freelancers. Managers and proprietors have also seen a small increase of two per cent in the last year and continue to account for 10 per cent of freelancers. Teaching and education professionals however have seen an 11 per cent drop in numbers equivalent to over 19,000 individuals.
Some freelancer occupations have managed to thrive over the last year, including health professionals, which have increased by 19 per cent (equivalent to over 15,000 individuals) and those working in design occupations, which have increased by 17 per cent (equivalent to over 12,000 individuals).
Other occupations that have also seen growth over the last year include information technology and telecommunications professionals (+8%), sports and fitness occupations (+7%) and business, research and administrative professionals (+7%) among others.
The story has not however been as positive for other occupations. Freelancers working as public service professionals have dropped by 29 per cent (equivalent to over 15,000 individuals) and those working as mangers and proprietors in hospitality and leisure services have seen an 18 per cent drop in numbers (equivalent to 10,000 individuals). Other sectors affected include engineering professionals (-17%), therapy professionals (-15%) and sales and marketing professionals (-8%).
The UK’s freelance population is now made up of 56 per cent males and 44 per cent females, representing a 2-percentage point increase in female freelancers. This is a more even distribution than the overall UK solo self-employed population, which is 62 per cent male and 38 per cent female.
This increase in the proportion of women compared to men is due to a six per cent increase between 2019 and 2020 in the number of highly skilled freelance women – equivalent to almost 51,000 individuals. Men, on the other hand, have seen a three per cent drop in numbers during the same period, equivalent to almost 33,000 people.
Although men still dominate in all three of the highest SOC groups, women make up over 40 per cent of each one, including in the highest SOC, comprised of managers and senior officials, where they represent 41 per cent compared to 59 per cent of men.
Freelance mothers in the UK have also continued to thrive over the last year, seeing an increase of 13 per cent between 2019 and 2020. There are now almost 343,000 highly skilled freelancing mothers, accounting for 16 per cent of the total freelancer population.
Those working in SOC 3 associate professional and technical occupations have seen the biggest increase this year, with an additional 34,000 mothers turning to freelancing (an increase of 28%).
The number of freelancing mothers in SOC 2 professional occupations also increased by 12 per cent (equivalent to 13,000 people). However, the highest skilled group – comprised of managers, directors and senior officials – actually saw a drop of nine per cent between 2019 and 2020, equivalent to over 6,000 working mothers.
As with the wider solo self-employed population, among freelancers the largest age groups are 40-49 (518,000) and 50-59 (551,000). Combined, these groups account for 50 per cent of all freelancers. As a result, the average age of UK freelancers is 48 years old – one year older than the overall solo self-employed average.
Unlike the wider solo self-employed population who have seen decreases in every age group apart from the 30-39 age band, the number of freelancers in the younger age groups (16-49) has increased by two per cent between 2019 and 2020, with those over 50 seeing a decrease of one per cent.
Length of time in self-employment
There is very little difference when looking at the length of time UK freelancers have been self-employed compared to the overall solo self-employed population. Over a quarter of freelancers (28%) have been working in this way for over 10 years and 15 per cent have only moved to freelancing between 2019 and 2020, equivalent to 292,000 people.
Again this is worrying as most of those new to freelancing will not have been eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) as they will not have submitted a 2018-19 tax return, a requirement to be able to access the scheme. The number of people unable to access the scheme because they were new to self-employment may be even higher than this as these figures only report those who are still self-employed in Q2 2020.
We saw in the previous section that there have been some large increases in the number of solo self-employed people accessing a range of benefits between 2019 and 2020. The same is true for the highly skilled freelancer subsection.
Looking at the Q2 2020 data we can see that there were large increases in the number of freelancers claiming almost all of the benefits apart from pension benefits (-12%) and tax credits (-29%).
The highest increase was for the number of freelancers claiming Universal Credit which rose by 345 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Those claiming income support also saw an increase of 294 per cent and the number of freelancers on sickness or disability benefits rose by 102 per cent.
In addition to these benefits which have seen over double the amount of freelancers claiming them in the last year, those on job seeker’s allowance (+69%), housing or council tax reduction (+26%), carer’s allowance (+23%) and claiming child benefits (+13%) have all seen increases between 2019 and 2020.
Freelancers have a similar geographical distribution to the overall solo self-employed population. However, a larger proportion of them live in Greater London (24% compared to 18% of the overall solo self-employed).
We saw in the previous section that the overall UK solo self-employed population had decreased in all areas apart from the East Midlands and Northern Ireland between 2019 and 2020.
Looking at the highly skilled freelancer subset tells a different story. The number of freelancers in the South West (+18%), the East Midlands (+13%) and the West Midlands (+5%) have all see substantial increases. As have the three devolved nations Wales (+17%), Northern Ireland (+6%) and Scotland (+4%)
The north, on the other hand, has seen its numbers of freelancers heavily hit, with large decreases between 2019 and 2020. The number of freelancers in the North West dropped by 10 per cent, equivalent to over 17,000 individuals and the North East decreased by 18 per cent or 13,000 individuals.
London and the South East have also seen smaller decreases of one per cent and five per cent respectively but remain the two biggest regions in terms of the number of freelancers, accounting for almost half of the sector (45%).
This year, the financial impact of the pandemic has led to a startling reversal in the growth of the solo self-employed sector. For the first time in 11 years, the solo self-employed sector has shrunk by 5 per cent – from 4.6 million to 4.4 million. This decline is also likely to have hastened in the months since Q2 2020 – as is indicated by the fall of the overall self-employed sector from 5.1 million at the end of 2019 to 4.53 million in November, according to the ONS Labour Force Survey.
The 2020 Self-Employed Landscape report has revealed where the hits to the solo self-employed are sharpest – from areas like Wales and Yorkshire to younger people and less highly skilled men.
It is clear that the pandemic has had an extremely uneven impact on the solo self-employed population, with the worst of it falling mostly on less highly skilled and secure self-employed. At the same time, some groups – especially among highly skilled freelancers – have actually managed to grow and flourish in this time. The total number of highly skilled freelancers has grown by 1 per cent and, combined with the decline of groups like SOC8, this has led to highly skilled freelancers now making up 49 per cent of the sector (up 3 percentage points on last year).
The unlikely success and flourishing of some groups cannot, however, make up for the disproportionate financial hit taken by many self-employed people – especially those excluded from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.
The exclusion of groups like the newly self-employed (revealed to be at least 591,000 people) has led to an enormous increase in benefits use. The number of self-employed accessing Universal Credit increased by an enormous 341 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while the number claiming income support grew by 335 per cent. Added to recent IPSE and Starling research showing one in five self-employed are now in debt because of the pandemic, this paints a bleak financial picture of a once thriving sector.
Overall, 2020 is a year that has left the self-employed landscape pockmarked and scarred. What the future holds for it is hard to say. The UK is now in its worst recession in recent memory and, while the self-employed can ordinarily be expected to thrive in a recession, the sector has been badly damaged and undermined by the financial impact of coronavirus and the gaps in government support over the last year.
This damage may leave the sector unable to flourish and drive recovery. There are also more threats arrayed against freelancers and the self-employed: particularly the changes to IR35 due in April and the impact of Brexit. Historically, the self-employed sector has been one of the most dynamic and resilient parts of the workforce, but against this backdrop there are serious doubts about its future and its ability to bounce back.