Freelance professionals, not exploited gig economy workers are behind the UK’s boom in self-employment, new research has confirmed. The study, Exploring the Rise of Self-Employment in the Modern Economy published by IPSE and Kingston University, sheds light on the 4.8 million people who make up the UK’s self-employed workforce.

The research shows that nearly half of this community (46%) are high-skilled professionals. IPSE’s findings tally with a 2016 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, which found that 70-75% of self-employed workers work independently through choice, while one in 6 of “traditionally employed” workers would like to work for themselves. This comes in stark contrast to the impression given by many media reports of forced self-employment at the hands of global gig-economy giants such as Uber or Deliveroo.

With the government having launched a major policy initiative, the Good Work Plan, based on these fears and an associated report into modern working practices by Matthew Taylor, there is a concern that the rights of genuinely self-employed professionals could be hit by well-meaning legislation. Chris Bryce, IPSE’s CEO, warns against this: “The report goes a long way to dispelling the myth that activity in the self-employment sector is occurring mainly in the ‘platform’ or ‘gig’ economies, when the real growth is in highly skilled freelancer occupations,” he said. Mr Bryce also underlined the value of self-employed freelancers to the UK economy, adding: “with solo self-employed people contributing £271 billion to the economy – and freelancers alone contributing at least £125bn – the Government simply cannot afford not to prioritise the wellbeing of this dynamic and remarkably productive sector.”

Other figures revealed by the research show that the professional freelancing sector is making faster strides than other self-employed sectors to close the gender gap. The study found that 43% of contracting professionals are female, compared to 35% for the self-employed as a whole. The closing of the gap is being driven by newcomers to the field, with numbers of women in freelancing growing by 67% over the past decade, compared to a rise of half that for men.

For Mr Bryce these two trends are related: “The rise of self-employed working women – especially freelance mothers – demonstrates that self-employment is a viable way to increase workforce participation,” he said. “People value flexibility, which is one reason why more people than ever before are moving into freelancing and taking the opportunity to fit their work around their lives.” If the move to self-employment is being driven by a surge in highly skilled professionals seeking flexibility, then what is the role of Whitehall, for Mr Bryce the answer is clear: “right now, the Government must do all it can to enable and protect freelancers and the self-employed – both in the Brexit negotiations and beyond.

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