Weak economy = more odd jobbers

The number of freelance, self-employed workers has hit yet another record high. It’s becoming almost a monthly occurrence now, as are the arguments I keep having with people about whether or not it’s a Good Thing, writes the author of Flip Chart Fairy Tales, a blog about the City and the workplace.

They usually start with me saying it’s another indicator of a weak economy and someone responding with something like “I went self-employed five years ago and I’ve never looked back,” or “My mate quit his job and set up on his own and now he’s loaded”.

You know what? I’m really pleased for you and your mate. I love hearing about people who have built up and run successful businesses or carved out a niche that means they can do the sort of work they love. It’s really great. But this preference for anecdote over data tells us nothing about the bigger picture.

Let’s recap on what we know.

  1. Self-employed people have, on average, lower salaries (PDF) than those in employment.
  2. 89 percent of those who have become self-employed since the start of the recession work less than 30 hours a week.
  3. The self-employed have higher personal debts and arrears on household bills.
  4. High levels of self-employment are a feature of poorer economies.
  5. According to the OECD, half the increase in income inequality in the UK over the past 30 years can be attributed to this country’s high level of self-employment and the low growth in self-employment income.

Even the argument about the newly self-employed being the entrepreneurs of the future doesn’t really stack up. As these chartsfrom the New Policy Institute show, while the number of self-employed has risen by more than a million since 2001, the number of people running businesses of more than one person is about the same as it was a decade ago.

Some of those in the ‘Running a business’ or ‘Partner in a business’ categories will have started as sole traders, replacing those who retired or packed up, but most of the rise in self-employment has been among the small one-person companies. The increase in self-employment hasn’t led to an increase in the number of small businesses. Hardly evidence of a new entrepreneurial spirit is it?

The rise in self-employment, then, is almost certainly a sign of our economy’s weakness. People are opting for under-employment rather than unemployment, as even business cheer-leading newspapers like the Daily Telegraph are now acknowledging. Sure, among the newly self-employed will be some who are enthusiastic about it, at least for now, but ultimately it will mean lower pay for most and, therefore, lower tax revenues for the exchequer. Record levels of self-employment are both a symptom of and a contributor to the UK’s economic malaise.

There is no shortage of people saying that the growth in self-employment is a Good Thing, basing their assessments on their own or their friends’ experiences. The data, though, suggest that, for the economy as a whole, it probably isn’t.

Editor’s Note: This comment piece was first published on the Flip Chart Fairy Tales Blog, whose author gave permission for this edited reproduction on FreelanceUK.



30th July 2012

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