New research asks: What if there were no freelancers?

What if there were no freelancers? That’s the question posed by a new research whitepaper launched in Tunbridge Wells exploring the impact freelancers have on our economy. 

Authored by startup and small business experts Town Square Spaces Ltd (TownSq), the paper looks at the current landscape for freelancers, what rights and support are available for them and what can be done to promote freelancing as a positive career choice.

The paper was launched as part of an event at the Town Hall, a small office and coworking space, which saw local freelancers, businesses and community organisations come together to discuss and celebrate the role that freelancers play in Tunbridge Wells.

There are 1.86 million freelancers in the UK, making it a workforce larger than the UK’s biggest employer, the NHS (1.3m). Together they contribute approximately £140bn to the UK economy each year and support businesses and organisations at every stage – from other one-person-bands right the way through to international enterprises.

Freelancers are a distinct sub-group of the self-employed population and differ from small businesses or side hustles/gig economies. Although the number of freelancers grows every year, there is still a huge element of risk, with no access to sick leave or paternity/maternity support.

There are now also additional barriers such as the cost-of-living crisis and recent contractor reforms imposed by HMRC (IR35), all of which make it more difficult for freelancers to operate.

Gareth Jones, CEO of TownSq, which operates the Town Hall, said that he hoped the paper would inspire greater discussion about how to support freelancers in the future.

Gareth said: “The idea for the paper came from hearing an unsympathetic quip from a Special Adviser in Whitehall after the 2020 Covid furlough and emergency loan schemes for employees and businesses offered no support for many self-employed workers. They said ‘Can’t all these freelancers just go and get jobs?’.

“At first, it just seemed out of touch, but it got us thinking – the role that freelancers play in our economy is often undervalued, underappreciated and, for some governments and large organisations, seemingly invisible.

“While there are millions of freelancers in the UK, the sheer diversity of skills and focus means that it can be difficult to represent them all, which perhaps is why this form of self-employment tends to be so overlooked.

“However, it’s the individual stories, like those in our report, that help showcase the personal insights of this unique way of working.

“We hope that, through this paper and the discussion it might raise, we can start a dialogue with the policymakers, educators and enterprises to see how we can collectively do more to support freelance entrepreneurship and help it flourish as the viable and respected career choice that it is.”

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