Freelance Definition: How the meaning of freelancing is changing

There are many different variations on how freelancers are working and defining their work today.

But traditional definitions of freelancing are becoming outdated as what being a freelancer means becomes more complicated and nuanced.

Let’s look at the definition of a freelance and how the meaning of the word "freelance" is changing.

What is the definition of freelancer?

There are many different definitions of a "freelancer".

According to the Collins English Dictionary;

"A freelancer is a self-employed person, especially a writer or artist, who is not employed continuously but hired to do specific assignments."

The Cambridge Dictionary has several definitions that are all quit similar:

  • doing particular pieces of work for different organizations, rather than working all the time for a single organization
  • someone who does particular pieces of work for different organizations, rather than working all the time for a single organization
  • working independently usually for various organizations rather than as an employee of a particular one

And Wikipedia has this description:

Freelance (sometimes spelled free-lance or free lance),[1] freelancer, and freelance worker, are terms commonly used for a person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term.

Seems fairly straightforward to me.

But a new report argues that is there are now 5 different types of freelancer and that there are more than 53 million Americans are doing freelance work – a sixth of the U.S. population.

And because of this, the definition of a what a freelancer is needs to change.


How the meaning of freelancing is changing

Starting with the general U.S. workforce, each survey respondent went through a series of questions that qualified their employment status and income in order to definitions of freelancing that might otherwise go unrecorded.

Here is how the report breaks down the new types of freelancers.

1. Independent Contractors


(40% of the independent workforce / 21.1 million professionals)

These “traditional” freelancers don’t have an employer and instead do freelance, temporary, or supplemental work on a project- to-project basis.

2. Moonlighters


(27% of the independent workforce/ 14.3 million professionals)

Professionals with a primary, traditional job who also moonlight doing freelance work. For example, a corporate- employed web developer who also does projects for non-profits in the evening.

3. Diversified workers


(18% of the independent workforce/ 9.3 million professionals)

People with multiple sources of income from a mix of traditional employers and freelance work. For example, someone who works the front desk at a dentist’s office 20 hours a week and fills out the rest of his income driving for Uber and doing freelance writing.

4. Temporary Workers


(10% of the independent workforce/ 5.5 million professionals)

Individuals with a single employer, client, job, or contract project where their employment status is temporary. For example, a business strategy consultant working for one startup client on a contract basis for a months-long project.

5. Freelance Business Owners


(5% of the independent workforce / 2.8 million professionals)

Business owners with between one and five employees who consider themselves both a freelancer and a business owner. For example, a social marketing guru who hires a team of other social marketers to build a small agency, but still identifies as a freelancer.

Is this the right definition of a freelancer?

The report argues that "the old way of working isn’t working", that more than 53 million workers in the U.S. are "showing a new way". But are these numbers accurate?

As you can see from the 5 types of freelancer above, the survey groups together moonlighters and temporary workers, 19.8 million that would have previously fallen outside of the definition of a freelancer.

The diversified workers group is also a new addition to the definition of freelancing. With 9.8 million in this group, these people might previously have been categorised as part-time workers – working multiple jobs to make up a full time equivalent (and that’s before we get into issues such as zero-hour contracts).

If you take the above groups away, you come to perhaps a more traditional number of Freelance Business Owners and Independent Contractors, which is 23.9m or 8% of the US workforce – 45% of the number the survey is suggesting are "freelance".

I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is the more accurate definition of a freelancer and just how many people can count themselves as freelance, but the survey results worth a flick through for insight into how freelancers across the US view their freelance work and prospects.

You can view the whole report at

Also take a look at the freelance statistics from this report here.

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