Freelancing in Europe in 2022: myths and realities

In the so-called “new world of work”, freelancing holds an important place, a trend that is also said to have been strengthened by the health crisis and by employees who want to live their professional life differently.

A recent study co-produced by BCG and Malt helps to understand a little better this type of worker and their added value for businesses.

Malt ?

If it is not useful to present the BCG, it is certainly not the same for Malt, especially if the recourse to freelancing is not a habit in your business.

Malt is a platform that connects businesses and freelancers. “Malt is the leader in connecting businesses and freelancers in France. With a team of 200 people, Malt accompanies the transformation of the world of work by connecting 180,000 freelancers in the digital professions to 25,000 business clients, 85% of which are CAC 40 [French Equivalent of the Dow Jones] companies.

As I often say, “look at who is funding or producing the study and you already know a bit about it”. You shouldn’t expect to read too many negative things about freelancing, even if the numbers don’t lie and show us a reality that goes against many received ideas, I think.

The distorting prism of the “gig-economy

When we talk about freelancing, many people spontaneously have in mind the image of platforms that exploit an “on demand” workforce, poorly qualified, with a model whose ethics can sometimes be questioned. The image of the “small” freelancer exploited, for lack of a better word, by the big platforms is very present and it corresponds to a sad reality.

The image of an undergone freelancing versus a chosen freelancing is also very present. Many people have in mind the image of a freelancer who would have chosen this status for lack of better, for lack of finding a salaried job, following a career accident. This was certainly true at one time but we will see that this is no longer the case.

The study sheds an interesting light on another face of freelancing or rather on what it has become.

Freelancing: a real strong trend in Europe

A few figures to start. If the study only covers three countries (France, Germany and Spain), freelancing concerns 22 million people in Europe (1 in France, 1.2 in Germany and 0.7 in Spain).

Low, let’s admit it, compared to the employed population but what counts is the trend. Since 2009 freelancing is up 92% in France, 40% in Spain and down 7% in Germany, certainly for reasons we will discuss below.

However, I think that the enthusiasm of the study should be tempered a little and its impact (even if growing in Europe) put into perspective. I have been looking for the figures of the American economy and they show us that although constituting a real trend in Europe it is today only a minor trend. In fact, in 2021, no less than 59M Americans, or 36% of the workforce, were concerned. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse, we can certainly have the discussion about chosen vs. suffered freelancing but it’s a reality that we have to keep in mind.

Also interesting is the average age of the freelancer: 37 in France, 40 in Spain and 45 in Germany without the study drawing any conclusions.

No conclusion either about the gender distribution: the typical freelancer in Europe is 65% male (55% in France, 74% in Germany, 66% in Spain).

Remote working didn’t kill the big job clusters

There is a data that surprised me while the crisis has stigmatized the so-called disaffection of employees for large urban employment areas. One would have thought that, a fortiori, freelancers would have been the first to leave them, knowing that for 73% of them the choice of freelancing corresponds to the desire to choose the place of work.

This is not the case.

In France 55% of freelancers are in Ile de France (around Paris), 76% in Bavaria and Ruhr in Germany, 81% in Madrid and Catalonia in Germany. We could have expected something else. But in the end 28% of them work on the client’s premises in France and 41% in Germany (15% in Spain). This may explain it.

The freelancer: a seasoned and fulfilled professional

Everything is going well in the kingdom of freelancers if we believe the study since 84% of them are satisfied with their status and 70% with the recognition they receive. They are also 84% who do not want to go back to a salaried life (at least in France and Germany, 74% in Spain).

Because they were employees before. Contrary to popular belief, the freelancer is an experienced employee who has built up experience and an address book in a business (94%) before setting off on his own.

They also claim to have significantly increased their earnings (tripled in some cases) although I’ll let you make up your own mind based on the daily rates in the three countries.

And the reasons for their choice: to manage their time as they see fit (81%), to manage their career in their own way (76%) and to decide where they work (73%).

Their added value? Agility and competence

When we ask ourselves why businesses use freelancers and what they bring to the table, two things come up repeatedly: competence and agility.

The freelancer would be in most cases experienced in agile methods, which corresponds to a real need for businesses that want to give more pace to their projects and focus on the value for the customer.

Another point: the freelancer is not only qualified but he updates his skills and trains constantly. In fact, in rapidly changing professions, being up to date with the latest developments is essential for them to exist on the market. They spend 5 hours a week to train, something that employees find difficult to do.

Finally, let’s add one last point: while it takes 6 months for an external recruitment and 9 for an internal recruitment, it would take 6 days to find a freelancer.

All is not so rosy for freelancers

However, the person who engages in freelancing must be aware of the difficulties of the exercise. Everyone agrees that negotiating with the client is the most complicated part of their activity. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that a good professional is not always a good salesperson or even has no experience in this field.

Also mentioned, the weight of administrative formalities. Being a freelancer also means becoming a business owner.

The freelancer also works more than the employee and this is easily explained: apart from the work for which he is paid, he has to prospect customers, manage his business and update his skills! They work an average of 43 hours per week…which in my opinion is not so far from the rhythm of many managers within businesses.

The last point that is presented as being specific to Germany (which I don’t believe) is the fact that many businesses use forced freelancing as a disguised form of employment, which would explain the decline in freelancing in this country. In my opinion this is an important enough subject not to be missed and I don’t think it’s limited to our friends across the Rhine…..

Conclusion: freelancing is magic!

After reading this study, the prevailing feeling is that freelancing is not far from being the best of all worlds, both for the freelancer and for the business.

Yes, there are some negative points as mentioned above but precisely, the weight of administration, prospecting and negotiation is reduced when instead of going through traditional channels you recruit your freelancers on specialized platforms like…Malt. And this is where I have a little problem with the content.

What the study does not say…

You have understood that the study was co-produced by Malt. More than co-produced: when you look at the credits at the end of the document, if you find BCG contributors listed, the editorial direction and writing are at Malt.

The study says that employees who go through Malt can earn up to 3 times more than others. We’ve seen more discreet product placement.

In the end I feel more like I’m reading an advertorial from Malt who bought himself credibility with a BCG “stamp” than a real study even if the figures are really interesting.

Let’s add to this that the people interviewed for this study are all Malt users, which means two things.

1°) We don’t have here a state of the art of Freelancing in Europe but among Malt users who can represent the “top of the basket”.

2°) By observing that this population the study does not take into account the most difficult situations, and in particular the famous gig-economy. It cannot therefore be said that it depicts freelancing in Europe in its entirety.

In the end, this very interesting study leaves me with a strange taste. I’m used to “co-financed” studies and I’m very comfortable with the principle, except that here I see a lot of data, little analysis, and it feels too much like a pretext for a marketing statement. It’s just clumsy. We feel too much the will to “boost” the importance of a subject which, if it exists, does not have the same magnitude as in other countries like the USA for example.

One might have liked to read that rather than working in an adhoc and disparate manner with their freelancers, businesses should streamline and industrialize sourcing at the global level. We could have asked the question of the need for a coherent employee experience between freelancers and employees. We would have liked to read more structuring things than what is ultimately an advertisement for freelancing and for Malt.

Image : freelance by via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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