Previous research has described that people enter self-employment due to either push or pull factors.9 Push factors are those where the individual had limited choice in their decision to become self-employed for reasons including redundancy or a lack of suitable alternative employment opportunities. Pull factors, on the other hand, are reasons that have drawn people to self-employment such as the freedom and flexibility it offers and the fact it allows people to pursue new business opportunities.
This new data revealed that self-employment is a positive choice for the majority of freelancers and pull factors dominate the reasons why people choose this way of work: notably flexibility, control and freedom.
The majority of freelancers agreed that their experiences of self-employment matched their expectations of having more flexibility, freedom and autonomy.
Almost 90 per cent (89%) of freelancers agreed that self-employment gives them autonomy to make their own decisions and 82 per cent also stated that being self-employed gives them the flexibility they need for other aspects of their lives. Women were significantly more likely than men to state that self-employment allowed them to be more flexible around their other commitments (86% and 79% respectively).
88 per cent of the population agreed that self-employment suited their lifestyle, with only two per cent disagreeing. When looking at those over 60 years old, the percentage of those disagreeing with the statement dropped to zero per cent. Interestingly, 43 per cent of people said that being self-employed had been more challenging than they had expected, and this figure rose to 60 per cent for freelancers aged 16-29. Those in the 60-plus age bracket were much less likely to say that self-employment had been more challenging than expected, with only a third (34%) agreeing with the statement.
29 per cent of freelancers said that being self-employed made it hard to find time for social and leisure activities. Younger freelancers (16-29-year-olds) were the most likely to say that this way of work made it hard to find time for social and leisure activities: 44 per cent said this was the case. Again, this reduced with age and only 23 per cent of those in the 60-plus age bracket felt that self-employment affected their ability to spend time on leisure activities.
Happiness in self-employment
Happiness among freelancers was very high, with over three-quarters (77%) rating their happiness seven out of ten or higher. Net unhappiness (0-3 out of 10) was low, with only five per cent rating their happiness as such.
Happiness in self-employment increased with age, with 66 per cent of the 16-29 age group reporting high net happiness compared to 84 per cent of the 60-plus group. Those who had been in self-employment for longer periods of time were significantly happier than those who were newer to self-employment.
There is more evidence of the happiness of the sector in freelancers’ future work plans.
When surveyed in April 2019, only four per cent of the sample were actively seeking an alternative to self-employment, with almost 60 per cent (57%) stating that they could imagine being self-employed forever. This figure increased significantly to 76 per cent for those who have been self-employed for ten or more years.
Younger freelancers, aged between 16 and 29, were the most likely to say that they were actively seeking an alternative to self-employment, with 10 per cent stating they were doing so.
Despite high levels of happiness, over half of the sample (53%) said that they tend to worry a lot. The proportion increased to 60 per cent for women and almost three quarters (72%) for those aged 16-29.
Freelancers revealed the areas where they had the most concerns, but they were also asked to identify the areas that they wanted more support with. The top five areas that freelancers wanted more support with were:
There were very few differences between demographics, although the need for support decreased with age, with more older freelancers (38%) stating they did not need support with any of the areas compared to younger freelancers (7%).
The only difference between men and women was that women wanted more support with saving for later life (38%) compared to men (29%). This is perhaps unsurprising as previous research has shown that 45 per cent of self-employed women are not currently saving in any way for later life compared to 36 per cent of men.19
The findings of this report suggest people are predominantly pulled into self-employment for positive reasons, notably the freedom and flexibility that it provides. Most enjoy the autonomy self-employment gives them to make their own decisions – as well as the flexibility it gives them around the rest of their lives. Over three quarters of freelancers rate their happiness in self-employment as high and very few are looking for an alternative to self-employment.
Despite the overwhelming benefits of self-employment, almost half said it had been more challenging than they had expected. Over half also said that they tend to worry a lot. The main things that concern people in their self-employed work are to do with finances, including irregularity of income, not being financially prepared for retirement and late payments. Finding work and not having access to statutory benefits were also concerns for many.
Finding work was, in fact, the area that freelancers wanted the most support with, as well as saving for later life, expanding their business, dealing with late payments and tax and legal issues.
The next section sets out a range of recommendations to help industry and government support freelancers with their concerns and challenges – to ensure self-employment remains a rewarding way of working for all.