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  • Where are freelancers choosing to spend their days?
  • Where are freelancers choosing to spend their days?
    Wenni Zhou (2018) ©

How has freelance life become more appealing?

Working nine-to-five may have been a mainstay in 20th century life, but as technology has freed people from their desks, many have sought a more flexible way of earning a living. What impact is the rise of freelancing having on other areas of life, such as daily routines and lifestyles?

Location Global

Working nine-to-five was such a mainstay in 20th century life, there was even a song about it. But in the 21st century, working patterns are becoming flexible as more people ditch the regular grind and go freelance. Due to rapid advances in technology, it’s predicted that freelancers, or those in the ‘gig economy’, could account for the majority of the American workforce by 2027. [1]

While it’s a popular choice in the West – research from 2017 showed that 35.5% of the world’s freelancers are based in Europe – this way of working is a global phenomenon, with emerging economies such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and India seeing the largest proportion of people earning their primary income through digital platforms. [2][3] It also cuts across demographic boundaries, though there are certain cultural and generational differences. In the US, for instance, the gender split is more or less equal, while in Asian countries, only one in five freelancers are female. [2] Similarly, though the number of self-employed workers in the UK aged 65-plus has nearly tripled since the recession, more than 50% of freelancers globally are under 30. [4][2]

Many people relish the flexibility of freelancing. Being able to attend your child’s school play, go to the gym halfway through the day, or avoid the rush hour commute are all key benefits. Others are freelancing more out of need than choice, taking gig economy roles while they look for more regular employment. Dr. Karen Gregory, a lecturer in digital sociology at the University of Edinburgh, says the freedom to choose how you spend your time is “very valuable to individuals... They enjoy the flexibility, they enjoy the idea that they can be their own boss.” [5] But what impact will widespread freelancing have on the rest of our lives? How will the routines and structures that served the nine-to-five employee adapt to this evolving workforce?


Appearing presentable
“I’m lucky enough to often work from home and this generally means absolutely zero make-up,” writes Isabel Spearman, The Telegraph’s workwear columnist. “My skin gets to breathe and I save ten minutes in the morning. However, on the days I have external meetings, I religiously put my game face on.” [6] With more and more women working from home – whether that’s because they’re freelancing or have an accommodating employer – the option to drop the ‘game face’ is appealing. With only themselves to please a large proportion of the time, many are turning to self-care products like moisturising face packs and sheet masks while tapping away at their computers.

Beauty expert Charlotte Elizabeth Libby agrees that changing working patterns are likely to impact beauty routines. “Product preferences are expected to shift away from those that are worn for emotional factors such as confidence-boosting or feeling societal pressures (e.g. make-up and perfume) and towards categories that provide a long-term benefit and are a more relaxing part of the routine, such as skincare masks,” she says. [7] Figures released by the NPD Group showed a 7% year-on-year decrease in UK make-up sales in 2018, and while it’s hard to know precisely what’s behind the decline, more home-workers could well be a contributing factor. [8]

“Make-up application may become less frequent and touch-ups less likely, meaning products will last longer and fewer repeat purchases [will be] happening within a year,” notes Libby. While this change in behaviour will cause some brands to sell less, demand for self-care and wellness products, which tend to only be used in the home setting, is likely to surge. Additionally, digital beauty is also an up-and-coming trend for home-workers. “Companies such as Shiseido have already introduced apps to virtually add make-up to the face, with marketing specifically targeting virtual workers attending conference calls,” Libby adds. “As Instagram and Snapchat filters also continue to gain users, filters from technology providers, as well as cosmetics brands including Kylie Cosmetics and Fenty Beauty, allow digital make-up to be added to pictures and videos.” [7]

Self-indulgence is easier when working from home Self-indulgence is easier when working from home
Sebastiaan ter Burg (2017) ©

Finding a place to work
Just as beauty regimes may change for women, it’s likely there will be a major shift in other familiar daytime routines. With digital tech facilitating remote work, the commute could become a thing of the past. “The labour force might be all distributed across the globe or across different states, while the company is actually located somewhere else and you might never even meet your co-workers,” says Dr. Gregory. [5] Workers can use this freedom to travel the world while completing freelance assignments from their laptops. According to research published in 2018, approximately 4.8 million independent workers in the US describe themselves as ‘digital nomads’, with most of them being young men working in creative or digital industries such as writing, designing, or IT. [9]

Yet not everyone is willing or able to travel the world or work from home. Many people simply want a desk to base themselves at a spot in their town or city. This has given rise to the familiar sight of freelancers parking themselves in cafés, buying one cup of coffee and hooking up to the Wi-Fi – a setup that some café owners are displeased with. “Three hours for five dollars’ worth of coffee is not a model that works,” said David Wynn, the co-owner of a small café on Sunset Boulevard, to The New York Times. [10]

There is, however, an alternative for these mobile workers. In less than a decade, co-working spaces have proliferated across the globe – there were 14,411 dedicated co-working locations worldwide in 2017, up from just 436 in 2010. [11] In Central London alone, ‘flexible workplace operators’ occupy just over 4% of all office stock, with WeWork boasting more real estate than both Google and Amazon. [12]  But it’s not just the free coffee and foosball tables that are attracting freelancers – research carried out in 2015 revealed that 84% of people who use co-working spaces are more engaged and motivated, while 89% report being happier. [13]

Coffee shops serve as a refuge wherever freelancers find themselves Coffee shops serve as a refuge wherever freelancers find themselves
Tim Bish (2018) ©

New needs, new solutions
While some freelancers relish the escape from office politics, others miss regular human contact and the opportunity to network. Indeed, a UK-based survey commissioned by Epson found that 32% of freelancers missed chatting with colleagues and 29% missed being part of a team. [14] Dr. Gregory explains that whereas “we used to live in this neighbourhood, we used to work at this factory, we used to live together, that’s no longer really a structure of middle class or even probably a working class family [life].” [5]

The Epson study also revealed that, worryingly, 48% of respondents described their working life as ‘lonely’ and 25% had experienced depression. [14] The risk of poor mental health was one of the reasons Hester Grainger set up Mumala Club, an online PR, marketing and networking club for women. Like many freelancers, she loves the flexibility but thinks loneliness is a real concern for this cohort of workers. She says people miss “just being in an office environment, as in missing the office banter, finding out what happened last night on TV, even silly stuff like ‘what are you having for tea tonight?’” [15]

Not only is technology helping freelancers get commissioned – 64% of those in the US found work online in 2018, representing a 22 percentage point increase since 2014 – but it’s also helping them connect socially and professionally. [16] Apps such as AndCo and Kitchin Table have found success matching freelancers with working spaces, whether that’s in someone else’s home, a freelancer-friendly café, or a co-working space on the opposite side of the world. [17] Other freelance needs, like help in finding work, have been met by platforms such as Fiverr, Upwork, and People per Hour, which all act as digital intermediaries for companies and workers.

Independent workers often want more than just a desk Independent workers often want more than just a desk
Sebastiaan ter Burg (2017) ©

Insights and opportunities
While the shift towards freelancing is not solely being led by Gen Yers and Zers, young people in particular tend to be more fluid in how they think about work. [2] “I think one really interesting group of people to talk about, or to, are students who look at a labour market and don't see a future of continuous stable permanent employment and are already thinking about themselves as entrepreneurs, are already thinking about themselves as creating start-ups, as kind of running things,” says Dr. Gregory. [5] There is an opportunity for employers across sectors to recognise that career progression is no longer seen as linear and thus become more freelance-friendly or accepting of flexible arrangements.

The stresses of freelance life are numerous, but invoicing and managing money can be especially trying, with 63% of US freelancers considering themselves to be financially unstable. [18] Poor financial straits can threaten one’s mental health and the simple fact of being self-employed leaves some freelancers unable to progress through the same life stages (e.g. buying a house) as their peers in full-time employment. There are, however, various tracking tools and brands seeking to address these issues, with Coconut Bank and cloud-based invoicing software Wave among the businesses helping gig economy workers stay on top of their incomings and outgoings. [19] Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-based ‘Freelancers Hub’, the result of a partnership between  the City of New York and the Freelancers Union, is a non-profit working space that offers classes and tax and legal advice. It exemplifies how a municipal body can collaborate with freelancer institutions, a model that will no doubt become more prevalent – and necessary – in the future. [20]

The labour force might be all distributed across the globe or across different states, while the company is actually located somewhere else and you might never even meet your co-workers

Dr. Karen Gregory, lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

Although freelance life offers flexibility that fits well around parenting, supporting a child on a fluctuating income (and without employer benefits) is an art many struggle to master. In countries such as Japan, freelancing is a popular choice for women, but they do not qualify for paid maternity leave. [21] And with the majority of the US workforce set to be freelance by 2027, there is a space for brands to step in and make the transition into parenthood easier, whether that’s by providing affordable childcare options or helping them find gigs that are friendly to new mothers and fathers. [22]

In a survey of 1,000 hiring managers conducted in 2018, 55% agreed that remote work among full-time employees is becoming more common, with the expectation that up to 38% of their workers will be operating remotely in the next decade. [23] Acknowledging the value of work-life balance – and its growing importance to prospective employees – some businesses are encouraging people to work from home some of the time or adapting their leave and holiday policies to better reflect their workers’ needs. Spotify, for instance, is introducing Flexible Public Holidays to better cater to its diverse staff, allowing them to trade traditional Christian and national holidays for ones that are important to their beliefs and identity. As the freelance life becomes more standardised and fruitful, these initiatives could prove smart for employers looking to retain staff.

1. 'Freelancers predicted to become the US workforce majority within a decade, with nearly 50% of millennial workers already freelancing, annual ‘Freelancing in America’ study finds', Upwork (October 2017)
2. 'This survey of 21,000 freelancers from 170 countries shows what having no boss is like', Inc. (October 2017)
3. 'The new freelancers: tapping talent in the gig economy', BCG Henderson Institute (January 2019)
4. 'Going solo: The rise of self-employment', BBC News (July 2018)
5. Interview with Dr. Karen Gregory conducted by author
6. 'How to master make-up for work', The Telegraph (January 2018)
7. Interview with Charlotte Elizabeth Libby conducted by author
8. 'Online boost to prestige beauty in 2018', NPD Group (January 2019)
9. 'Digital nomadism: a rising trend', MBO Partners (2018)
10. 'What to do when laptops and silence take over your cafe?', The New York Times (February 2018)
11. '2018 Global Coworking Forecast: 30,432 spaces and 5.1 million members by 2022', GCUC (December 2017)
12. 'WeWork becomes London’s largest office occupier as UK workspace hits record growth', Allwork.Space (January 2018)
13. 'Coworking is not about workspace — it’s about feeling less lonely', Harvard Business Review (December 2017)
14. 'Freelancers experiencing isolation and mental illness', HR (September 2018)
15. Interview with Hester Grainger conducted by author
16. 'New 5th annual 'Freelancing in America' study finds that the US freelance workforce, now 56.7 million people, grew 3.7 million since 2014', Upwork (October 2018)
17. 'Freelancer? New app AndCo uses AI to match you to London's hot desks', Evening Standard (September 2018)
18. '63% of freelancers are financially unstable. Here's how to fix that', The Motley Fool (June 2018)
19. 'Coconut Bank: cracking open finance for freelancers', Canvas8 (May 2017)
20. 'How New York City supports freelancers: the 'Freelancers Hub' in Brooklyn', Forbes (January 2019)
21. 'Japanese freelancers choose flexible work over stability', Canvas8 (February 2018)
22. '4 predictions for the future of work', World Economic Forum (December 2017)
23. 'Remote work is 'the new normal'', Fast Company (February 2018)

Featured Experts

Dr. Karen Gregory

Dr. Karen Gregory is a digital sociologist, ethnographer, and lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the programme director of the MSc in Digital Society.

Charlotte Elizabeth Libby

Charlotte Elizabeth Libby has over a decade of experience in the beauty, health, and wellness industries. She was responsible for health and beauty content at leading market intelligence agency Mintel, analysing global markets, trend forecasting, and creating strategic insight articles. In 2018, she launched indie beauty brand XO Balm and became a freelance consultant and copywriter.

Hester Grainger

Hester Grainger is the founder of Mumala Club, a PR, marketing and networking group for self-employed and freelancing women in the UK.


Natalie Leal is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She holds a BSc and Master’s degree in Social Anthropology and writes about a range of subjects, including culture, society, politics, innovation, technology, and sustainability. Her work has appeared in national and local press and she can be found tweeting at @NatalieLeal_.