Beyond Gigs: The “Project Economy”

Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of Trinity Business School, Trinity College, Dublin, and chair of the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE) shines a light on the immense value of the growing freelancer “project economy”.

Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of Trinity Business School, Trinity College, Dublin, and chair of the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE) shines a light on the immense value of the growing freelancer “project economy”.

By the CoBS Editorial team, based on an original piece by Andrew Burke from his CRSE Report ‘The Freelance Project and Gig Economies of the 21st Century’.

As people increasingly give up the nine-to-five job in favor of freelance work, the “gig economy” has come to dominate the global conversation. In fact, the term is so widely used in the media, it is sometimes difficult to avoid discussing it. However, it is by no means the only form of work among the UK’s 4.8 million-strong self-employed community. A new report by Professor Andrew Burke from the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE) is shining light on the many other forms of freelance work that exist beyond the “gig economy”. Most notably, the much larger and more productive “project economy”.

Far beyond the gig

Prof. Burke’s report entitled The Freelance Project and Gig Economies of the 21st Century establishes the dominance not of the “gig economy”, but rather of the aforementioned “project economy”. Indeed, among highly skilled freelancers project work is five times more common than “gig” work. While in practice, both forms of freelancing are similar, it is the nature of the freelancers’ work that differentiates them. The CRSE’s report defines “gig” work as being paid to repeatedly perform the same task or gig for a client. In contrast, “project” work involves a freelancer being paid to help deliver all or a significant part of a particular business project.

Remarkably, Prof. Burke’s research found that—with these definitions—there are currently five times as many highly skilled “project” freelancers (those in the top three Standard Occupational Classifications) as “gig” freelancers. As a result of the availability of this talent, the “project economy” plays a vital role in driving the productivity of the wider economy. This is further manifested by the fact that these 2.1 million highly skilled freelancers—including managers, directors, professionals, and associate professionals—earn more than twice as much as equivalent full-time employees. Highly skilled freelancers are by far the most productive part of the self-employed sector: Contributing an estimated £140-145 billion to the economy every year.

Unsurprisingly, most of this output is not generated through gigs. Project-based freelancers accounts for 73 per cent—or £104 billion—of the UK’s £140-145 billion economic output of highly skilled freelancers. Gig-based freelancers, by contrast, account for just 14 per cent, or £20 billion, of this amount. The rest is made up by what Prof. Burke calls “portfolio” freelancers. Freelancers who do a variety of different kinds of work including both small gigs and entire projects.

Fueling innovation-driven growth

Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of Trinity Business School, Trinity College, Dublin, and chair of the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE) shines a light on the immense value of the growing freelancer “project economy”.

As Prof. Burke points out in the CRSE’s report, much of the economic success of developed countries in the 21st century has been the result of their innovation-driven economies. Corporate growth and innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, have acted as the vehicles that delivered their outstanding growth. As a part of this economic machine, freelance work has undoubtedly proven to be a potent fuel.

Indeed, a vital part of the innovation enjoyed by developed economies can be attributed to the work of highly skilled freelancers. As Prof. Burke’s qualitative research has demonstrated, many firms are able to tap into human resources beyond the confines of their employees to embrace the flexible expertise of project freelancers for their innovation and growth work. In addition, these skilled freelancers also help them navigate peaks and troughs in demand due to their inherent flexibility and thus boost their productivity. The CRSE’s report found that the contribution of skilled freelancers to the workplace and economy is indeed overwhelmingly positive.

This contribution is most evident in the realms of digital technology advances and new product development. Indeed, without access to these highly skilled freelancers for project work, success in these two key areas would be far more challenging for businesses across the board. Overall, the CRSE’s report presents conclusive evidence that project freelancers contribute an enormous amount to the economy—more than the entire creative sector—and do much to drive economic performance through innovation. These findings are backed up by Prof. Burke’s other recent quantitative research papers published in the Small Business Economics research journal, one of which finds a causal link between a firm’s use of a freelancer intensive (greater than 11%) workforce and higher growth with net employee job creation while another shows that the level of new business start-up activity is positively related to the availability of freelancers in the workforce.

Freelancing forward

Although the majority of Prof. Burke’s analysis was based on UK data, the CRSE’s report demonstrates that these findings could also apply to other similar innovation-driven economies such as most Western Europe and the United States. Today, developed economies would be far less entrepreneurial and innovative and, ultimately, would be more sluggish if their firms did not have access to highly skilled freelancers. As such, improving access to and encouraging participation in this freelance project economy may be a promising path forward for much of the developed world.

Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of Trinity Business School, Trinity College, Dublin, and chair of the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE) shines a light on the immense value of the growing freelancer “project economy”.
Prof. and Dean Andrew Burke

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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