We’ve been seeing a fundamental shift away from traditional linear employment paths in the UK for years, with more and more people turning to ‘side hustles’ and freelance work.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend – enabling individuals to work more flexibly and offer their skills on a global market, while also demonstrating innovative new ways to structure a company, with hybrid workforces of full-time employees and freelancers.
And while freelancers have typically been associated with individuals in the creative economy, such as illustrators, photographers and journalists, as well as industries like construction, we’ve seen the freelance sector broaden over recent years with a whole new cohort of workers from sectors you would normally associate with full-time employment, such as financial services.
There are actually now more than four million self-employed people in this country, around 15% of the UK’s workforce, while research has recently revealed that over one third of people in the UK run their own ‘side hustle’.
That means the UK is one of the leading countries globally in terms of its proportion of self-employed people – ahead of many other countries including the United States and Germany.
‘Side hustle’ UK
If you dig deeper into that number, however, you’ll find a more mixed picture. Our self-employed workforce remains heavily skewed towards certain demographics. It is dominated by men, and while people aged 45 and over make up more than a quarter of the UK’s self-employed, those under the age of 24 make up just a tiny 3.8%.
There is a reason for that. Firstly, freelancers in the UK still face serious barriers that are especially challenging for younger people.
Research we’ve carried out with the government’s Small Business Commissioner found, for example, that up to 55% of freelancers have not been paid for work carried out and 41% of invoices are regularly paid late. This may be particularly problematic for young people just starting out in their careers – who have rent to pay, who may be trying to get on the housing ladder, or who may not have the luxury of a savings cushion.
Secondly, in the UK, the focus of educational institutions and successive governments has long been on getting young people into full-time employment. Students are basically conditioned to think graduating and immediately getting a full-time job is their main goal. A weakness often acknowledged in political circles is the UK’s prioritisation of academic education rather than technical education. But what has been less spoken about, is that while the UK produces some of the most educated individuals in the world, we fundamentally fail to equip them with the expertise they need to build a business or to commercialise the skills they possess.
At UnderPinned, we are using technology to support people of all ages to build a business around their skills and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed. Our ‘virtual office’ has features to build a freelance portfolio, find and manage clients and projects, and produce invoices and contracts. Meanwhile our practical accelerator programme supports them to build confidence in crucial freelance skills like pitching to clients.
We are thrilled to be partnering with leading universities in London – University of the Arts London, London College of Communication, St Mary’s University Twickenham and London Metropolitan – to provide more than 22,000 students with access to these tools and this course. And we want to scale up right across the country and offer our platform to every student who wants it.
It’s really encouraging that major institutions recognise that, to succeed in the modern world of work, the educational offer for students needs to change. That this isn’t just about identifying students’ core skills sets, but about providing them with the skills to broaden their appeal as independent workers.
Knowledge and infrastructure
The UK is one of the best places in the world to start your own business and to work for yourself, but young people are currently missing out because they don’t have the knowledge and infrastructure to support them. We need other institutions and our political leaders to recognise this.
Rather than simply shepherding students from the lecture theatre to the office, we should be acknowledging that the world of work is changing – becoming increasingly digitised, flexible and remote – and preparing students for that new horizon.
Failure to do so robs them of the opportunities offered by freelancing and working for themselves, and it also robs employers of the agile, skilled individuals who could be game changers for their business.