Today, more professionals are choosing the flexibility and independence of freelance work over a traditional 9-to-5 office setup. According to a long-running study by MBO Partners, 51 million people in the U.S. worked independently in 2021, a 34% increase over 2020. And the trend is likely to continue.
While a freelance arrangement might lack the financial security of full- or part-time employment, freelance workers don’t have to earn less than their traditionally employed counterparts. In fact, according to Upwork’s data on freelancers, 44% of freelancers made more money than they did when employed at a traditional job. Additionally, the 2022 Payoneer global freelancer income report revealed a significant increase in the global hourly freelancing rate from $21 in 2020 to $28 in 2022.
We’ll explore freelancers’ current earning power and explain the reality of making a living as a freelancer in the modern world.
A freelancer is a self-employed professional with a specific skill set who works independently for clients for a fee. Freelance work can be time-limited, project-based assignments. Freelancers could also accept long-term engagements for ongoing services for in-house teams lacking the bandwidth or expertise to execute certain projects and tasks.
Freelancers can choose to work independently full time or utilize their talents as a side hustle. While freelance work spans most industries, Payoneer notes that popular freelance areas include web design, graphic design, programming and IT.
A professional in nearly any industry can choose to go independent and become a freelancer. However, some industries are more likely to support freelance work than others. Here are some examples of popular freelance occupations.
According to Payoneer, web design and graphic design are popular freelance fields, while Upwork’s study indicated that Arts & Design comprises 77% of the U.S. independent workforce. Depending on their specializations, independent designers can work on various projects, including building a website, making a website landing page and designing logos to create a visual brand.
To find new clients and projects, many web and graphic designers choose to join a specialized online platform like Dribble or register with more generic marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr.
Payoneer’s findings show that freelance copywriters and content creators make up 10% of independent gigs. Projects include creating blog posts, writing articles, editing, producing case studies and writing resumes. Depending on your skill set, some companies may pay more than $100 per hour for legal writing, copywriting and tech writing.
Search engines, especially Google, have changed the economics of advertising online. If you are interested in freelance writing, it’s essential to educate yourself on search engine optimization, keywords and link building.
Programming and IT remain among the most popular freelancing fields. According to Payoneer, these areas have experienced combined growth of 35% during the pandemic.
Like designers and content creators, freelance web developers have different specializations depending on their skill sets and areas of expertise. Among many other tasks, businesses may seek front-end developers who transform code into graphic interfaces or back-end developers who dive deep into databases, scripting and architecture building.
There are many reasons professionals choose to work as freelancers instead of seeking traditional employment. Here are some of the top freelancing benefits:
While independent work offers many benefits, freelancing also presents several potential downsides and risks.
There are many reasons businesses hire freelancers. Scott Galit, CEO of Payoneer, echoed what many freelancers have discovered in recent years: Today’s hyperconnected “borderless world” has created unprecedented work opportunities for talented professionals, no matter where they’re located.
“There’s an obvious appeal to freelancing,” Galit said. “Businesses worldwide can tap into a larger and more diverse talent pool than ever before, and … freelancers and service providers [can] secure work with international companies. Freelancing offers smart, talented, hardworking professionals and business owners in emerging economies such as Argentina, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Serbia a major breakthrough in job prospects and earning potential that they would have never thought possible a few years ago.”
For freelancers who want to market themselves better and earn more money, Steel advised creating a presence across multiple freelancing networks and asking clients to leave reviews on those sites. He also noted that branding yourself and promoting your work through a blog and social media channels can help you gain exposure, credibility and, ultimately, business growth.
“If you’re good at your job, there really is no limit to how much you can grow your business,” Steel said. “Many of the most successful entrepreneurs we come across just keep growing, and it’s because they’re bold and eager to promote themselves. Companies will be more drawn to you – and be willing to pay more – when they see you’re serious.”
Many factors impact how much freelancers earn. According to Payoneer, aside from obvious aspects like location, industry and years of experience, the freelancer’s age, gender, education level and availability can impact pay rates.
Here’s a deeper look at factors that influence freelancers’ earning potential.
The 2022 Payoneer study revealed that freelancers with a college degree earned, on average, $24 per hour, while high school graduates earned $22 per hour. These numbers differed from the 2020 survey, where freelancers with a college degree earned $19 compared to $22 for freelancers with a high school education.
Still, the fact that there’s not a wide gap in pay between college graduates and high school graduates indicates that companies that hire freelancers favor experience and client reviews over formal education, according to Jonny Steel, vice president of marketing at Payoneer.
“Not everyone has the same access to traditional higher education, but the beauty of the internet is that as long as you’re connected, you have access to an almost infinite amount of knowledge,” Steel said. “People can learn skills from watching online tutorials, reading e-books and following the latest trends on top-notch blogs. So when it comes to making an impact on the freelance marketplaces, it matters a lot less where you acquired your skills from, as long as you can do the job.”
According to MBO Partners, the number of U.S. full-time freelancers grew 25% in 2021 to 3.4 million, and it is likely to increase. As Payoneer suggests, on average, full-time freelancers make $3 more per hour than those who engage in freelance work on the side. Additionally, workers who choose to freelance full time report a significantly higher work-life satisfaction rate.
The decision of whether to commit full time to the freelancing lifestyle depends on many factors. For example, workers at the beginning or end of their career are more likely to freelance exclusively, and those in the industries like finance and QA are much more likely to use freelancing as a side gig.
Considering that technology advancement and shifting work paradigms contribute to the freelancing surge, it’s not surprising that younger workers are more likely to embrace those trends and spearhead the freelancer movement. Millennials and Gen Z represent a vast majority of the freelance workforce worldwide.
However, when it comes to compensation, experience is still rewarded with higher earnings. Freelancers over the age of 55 earn more than twice as much as their 18-to-24-year-old counterparts.
Despite increased representation of women among the freelance workforce in recent years, there is a persistent gender pay gap, with women making an average of $23 per hour versus $28 per hour for men.
The pandemic increased the demand for freelance workers. With U.S. businesses realizing that talented professionals don’t necessarily have to be bound by geographical location or an employment contract, freelance writers embraced new opportunities and can expect to earn an average salary of $65,676 in 2022, according to ZipRecruiter.
Carol Tice, creator of Make a Living Writing and author of dozens of books dedicated to making money as a freelance writer, believes that the most lucrative path involves content marketing.
“When you compare types of writing, sophisticated content marketing work – content strategy, whitepapers, case studies, client e-books – appears to be a faster track to good pay for newbies than sales-focused copywriting such as direct-response, email marketing, and sales pages,” she said. [Learn how to develop a content strategy.]
The short answer is that it depends. While freelancing offers benefits like flexibility and the ability to work remotely, it comes with financial risks and the need for an initial investment to establish yourself in the market. Studies indicate that many freelancers earn more than their employed peers, but the rate varies greatly by industry, specialization, region, experience level and other factors.
There are many opportunities for writers to make a living freelancing. The challenges are determining your niche, embracing your passions and applying your skills. If you’re thinking of becoming a freelancer, research your field’s opportunities and challenges, invest in upskilling, and have a backup plan in case of unexpected financial emergencies.
Nicole Fallon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.