Varying sources have cited the rise of the freelance or “gig economy” as revolutionizing the US workforce. Freelancing may be popular nowadays, but freelancing isn’t a 21st century phenomenon by any means. To quote the Online Etymology Dictionary:
freelance (n.) – also free lance, free-lance, “medieval mercenary warrior,” 1820 (“Ivanhoe”), from free (adj.) + lance (n.); apparently a coinage of Sir Walter Scott’s. Figurative sense is from 1864; specifically of journalism by 1882.
By some accounts, the gig economy is taking off—to the point that by 2020, about 40% of Americans will be part of it. Should office landlords be concerned that this trend will have a cataclysmic negative impact on demand for office space? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
The data is compelling, but not conclusive.
One oft-quoted source for this statistic is an independent study: “Freelancing in America: 2015”, commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork.
This survey reports that nearly 54 million Americans—34% of the workforce—have done freelance work in the past year. It further states that “this is more than an economic change. It’s a cultural and social change on par with the Industrial Revolution.” Yikes. But is it really a revolution? A closer look at the survey shows that just 12% of the workforce are independent contractors, or traditional freelancers. Half the workers in the survey are not exclusively freelance but are categorized as “moonlighters” or “diversified workers,” meaning they either have a primary traditional job or a mix of freelance and traditional employment. Temporary workers and freelance business owners make up of the rest of the survey’s definition of the gig economy.
Concurrent with the discussion that the U.S. is transforming into a gig economy, government data suggests that the share of self-employed workers (people who work for profit or fees in their own business) is declining. Another report by the Pew Research Center, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cites ”self-employment” for 30% of the national workforce with the share of workers who are self-employed decreasing from 12.2% in 1994, the most recent peak, to 10% in 2014. Admittedly, the two surveys are capturing different but not entirely distinct populations. Still, the government data at least puts into question the notion that we are headed to becoming a nation of freelancers or “supertemps.”
Gig economy companies are not all-virtual.
Perhaps the most high-profile example of a company in the gig economy is Uber. Launched just five years ago, the company has grown from four employees to more than 3,000 around the globe—a number which does not include its “gig economy” drivers. The company registered its 1 millionth driver in June and is possibly unrivaled in terms of how the sharing economy and on-demand platforms has influenced freelance work options. According to Uber’s Chief Advisor David Plouffe, half of all Uber drivers in the U.S. drive fewer than 10 hours a week. By this measure, drivers are less concerned with seeking part-time employment than finding a way to make some additional income driving their cars. While Uber is clearly expanding the ranks of those who earn at least a percentage of their income from the sharing economy, it has also become a major occupier of traditional office space. The company is in 311 cities in 58 countries and occupies well over 1 million square feet of office space globally. It inked a deal in March to expand its already-sizable Mission Bay, San Francisco footprint and in September acquired a 330,000-square-foot former Sears building in Oakland for 2017 occupancy. If anything, this exemplifies how shared-economy businesses have the capacity to increase office demand rather than the reverse. Including the Oakland and San Francisco transactions, in just over the past year, Uber has closed on deals totaling over 1 million square feet in Hoboken, Chicago, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Santa Monica, New York, Boston, and Dallas. And this from a company started by two guys having trouble finding taxis in San Francisco. Now that’s revolutionary.
Even with data that points to an increase in the freelance economy, independent workers still look for community.
The proliferation of co-working and shared office spaces supports this. Companies like Regus and WeWork serve freelancers and early-stage companies, small to large companies, entrepreneurs and service providers alike. The growth in this workspace option has been explosive. Dave McLaughlin, a general manager with WeWork spoke at the CREW Boston Innovative Workplaces luncheon in October of this year and stated the company would be growing from 24,000 desks globally in Q2 2015 to 50,000 desks in Q4 2015. Members include unincorporated entrepreneurs, companies not desiring to sign a standard lease and established suburban companies in need of an urban outpost. In addition to perks and benefits such as healthcare and travel, members enjoy the ability to connect with like-minded peers and potential customers.
Are freelancers changing our economy? Yes—but we’re not quite at “revolution” status yet.
Mary is Director of Market Strategy & Research for Colliers International in Boston. When not focused on custom analytics for the firm’s clients and business lines, she is a pilates and yoga enthusiast, has been known to play a mean game of Scrabble and is a faithful member of Red Sox Nation.