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Why Politicians Better Start Listening to Freelancers

Oct 02, 2015

The Labor Department's monthly jobs report, out today, has economists feeling disappointed about another month of lackluster employment growth. But the focus on job creation (or lack thereof) doesn't take into account a different group of workers: freelancers, an increasingly large segment of the labor market. As presidential candidates gear up for 2016, they'd also do well to take note of the rise of the "gig economy" —and the likely impact of freelancers on the election.

According to a survey released Thursday of more than 7,000 freelancers by the Freelancers' Union and Upwork, a site that connects gig workers with assignments, 86% of freelancers anticipate voting in 2016. Of those voters, 62% said that they were more likely to cast their ballot for someone with an eye out for the concerns commonly facing workers who take on freelance jobs. At the top of that list, survey respondents identified health care (namely, finding affordable health insurance), high taxation rates, unpredictable incomes, and saving for retirement.

Those numbers are hardly insignificant, given that Upwork estimates that nearly 54 million workers—34% of the U.S. labor market—have reportedly done "some sort of freelance work" in the past year. That figure is up 700,000 from the previous year. A second survey on the freelance economy, released Tuesday by MBO Partners, puts the number of full-time freelancers at 17.8 million, with another 12.4 million freelancing part-time.

As Fast Company noted back in May a voting bloc that potentially includes one-third of American workers is huge: "It’s as large as the entire U.S. Latino community, often hailed as the nation’s most important rising political force. It’s more than the combined number of voters (Democrats and Republicans) who came to the polls in California, New York, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida in 2012." These workers are also an economic force to be reckoned with: "With annual freelance earnings north of $715 billion, they earn more than the combined value of Facebook, Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, and McDonald's."

And yet, presidential candidates have hardly touched on the interests of this growing constituency. True, Hillary Clinton did note in a July address that "the so-called 'gig' economy is "raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future" and vowed that as president, she would "crack down on bosses misclassifying workers as contractors." And Jeb Bush, that same month, tweeted a picture of himself riding shotgun in a San Francisco Uber, even as the company was taking heat for making just that sort of misclassification. (Though the "sharing economy," encompassing companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Postmates, makes up only a small, albeit growing, share of freelance income.)

But it's increasingly clear that to win over the gig economy, candidates will have to put in more than a part-time effort.

Want more information on the freelance economy? Check out this gallery.

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