Freelance and contract work have always been available as job options, but these positions are becoming more commonplace as employers look to increase flexibility in their staffing. For example, a delivery service might want to hire more freelance drivers to help with a holiday rush or a small business might want a contractor to help with a short-term project such as the redesign of its website.
Experts say freelance work gives older adults the opportunity to try out jobs they may have long dreamed about or to make extra money on the side. They also note that contract work can be a pathway for adults who are re-entering the workforce.
In fact, according to some economic research, almost all of the growth in the labor market stems from the expansion of the temporary workforce. "Much of the jobs growth in the last 10-15 years has occurred in nontraditional, alternative ways of working," says Jonas Prising, chairman and CEO of Manpower Group, which studies the labor market. "What people want is changing. They are working longer, learning more and seeking a better balance between work and home.”
In a survey last year of more than 9,000 workers, Manpower discovered that for workers from 50 to 65, the appeal of freelance jobs lies in finding work that’s meaningful rather than getting paid well. This was the only age group in the survey that valued the type of work over income.
A recent study from Upwork, a website that matches freelancers with jobs, and the Freelancers Union, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of contract workers, found that people over age 55 made up 28 percent of the contingent workforce last year. Contract-work opportunities can be found in nearly every occupation. The most promising fields include accounting, multimedia artist, delivery truck driving and management consulting, according to research from the job-search website CareerCast.
The Upwork study also revealed a key disadvantage to freelancing: income unpredictability. Contract work can be lucrative. Some 36 percent of the freelancers who responded said they earned more than $75,000 annually. But building and maintaining a client base takes time and doesn’t always guarantee a steady flow of projects. Among full-time freelancers, 63 percent had to take money out of their savings at least once a month, compared with only 20 percent of nonfreelancers.
Upwork is one of several websites that specialize in helping freelancers find jobs. In exchange for connecting contract workers with clients, most websites charge fees. Upwork and Guru, for example, deduct a fee based on the value of the contract. Another prominent option, LinkedIn’s ProFinder, charges a membership fee of $59.99 per month. There are many other freelance websites online, so it is important to check their fees before bidding for contracts.
Of course, most older workers have an edge in the freelance search: strong networks of professional contacts. “What we are seeing is that these freelance professionals are breaking away from the corporate world by leveraging their extensive professional networks to launch their solo careers and successfully land business leads,” says Yu Liu, who is lead product manager for ProFinder. Liu also notes that older workers tend to have networks full of people who wield decision-making power within their companies about whether to bring freelancers aboard.