More freelancers than public employees: Is that really a Good Thing?

Ben Dellot started something when he suggested that there might be more self-employed workers than public sector employees by 2018.

Number of self-employed and public sector workers 2010 -2020


Rob Grant pitched in, saying he reckons that London has already gone past the tipping point.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 16.41.48

Some people seem to think this will be a very good thing. Luke Johnson, for example, writing in the FT:

Some commentators say the rise of flexible labour is not to be confused with a rise in entrepreneurialism. This is a counsel of perfection. Society needs the self-sufficient. An over-large welfare state breeds dependence and a deadly sense of entitlement, which only impoverishes us all. In any event such systems are unaffordable in the 21st century, as countries such as Greece, Italy and even France are discovering.

It’s interesting that he mentions Greece and Italy, both of which have among the highest levels of self-employment in the developed world.

It got me thinking, though, before we celebrate this tipping point, it might be interesting to compare the balance between public sector workers and the self-employed across the rest of the developed world.

I dug out the figures for government employment and self-employment for 2011 as that is the latest year for which I could find a full dataset. (There are one or two figures that look slightly odd here. In Germany and the Netherlands, public employment looks light because they outsource a relatively high proportion of their public service provision.)

I have also added productivity and per capita GDP figures for 2011 to the dataset for comparison.

Self-employment & public sector employment, OECD, 2011

Self-employmentv Public Sector


Sources: OECD Factbook, OECD Government at a glance

Let’s see what that looks like on a graph. The countries with more public sector workers than self-employed are on the left.

Balance between public sector employment and self employment

Self-emp v public sector


The first thing that strikes you is that the richer countries tend to be on the left and the poorer ones on the right. Even Germany and the Netherlands are further up the scale than they would be if less of their state activities were outsourced. Those economies where the labour force contains a high number of self-employed people tend to be poorer.

Let’s compare these figures with per capita GDP.

Slef Empb Pub Sec GDP

In general, then, the greater the balance tips towards self-employment and away from public sector employment, the poorer a country is likely to be.

Of course, that’s not to say that high levels of self-employment make a country poor. If anything, it’s the other way round. Countries have high levels of self-employment and because they are poor. What these figures also reflect is the size of the private corporate sectors. Take the US, for example. Although it has a relatively small public sector it is firmly on the left of the graph because it also has low self-employment. That is because much of its employment is provided by medium and large firms. It is not a small business country.

For countries on the right of the chart, like Greece and Italy, while their public employment is higher than that of the US, they also have high self-employment because their corporate sectors are weak. As the WSJ said, southern Europe’s problem is that it has too many small firms and not enough large ones. Southern Europe’s firms don’t create enough jobs so, as its public sectors retrench, self-employment takes up the slack.

A lack of large-scale employers, either in the public or corporate sectors, is reflected in productivity levels. Again, the countries on the right hand side of the graph have lower productivity levels than those on the left. Micro-businesses just don’t have the resources to invest either in technology or human capital. The consequences of having an economy dominated by the self-employed are therefore low productivity and low skills.

Slef Empb Pub Sec Productivity

Since 2011, the UK has shifted to the right of this graph. According to research by Morgan Stanley, Britain’s increase in self-employment has been greater than that of most other OECD countries.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 18.10.40

As this ONS chart shows, private and public sector jobs lost during the recession have not been replaced. The corporate sector has not created enough new jobs, so self-employment has filled the gap.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 18.36.36

This fall in public and corporate employment and the corresponding rise in self-employment has the UK sliding down that sloping line on the scattergrams. It takes us to the right, getting further away from the rich countries and closer to the poor ones.

Every time I write something like this, some self-employed people seem to take it very personally, as though I’m criticising their decision to go self-employed. They are missing the point. It’s not my business to criticise anybody’s career choice but, more importantly, I’m not saying that any of this is the fault of self-employed people. The rise in self-employment is a symptom of a weak economy just as it is everywhere else in the world. People are starting businesses because there are so few jobs available, and who can blame them. The problem is, though, that this trend takes us very much towards what Peter Cheese called the low road, that of low per capita GDP, low productivity and low wages.

Countries with very high levels of self-employment tend to be basket cases. The more the numbers of self-employed exceed the numbers in the public sector, the more basket casey they tend to be. Some people might be celebrating the tipping point when self-employment exceeds public sector employment. If you look at what that tips us towards, though, I don’t see much to cheer about.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to More freelancers than public employees: Is that really a Good Thing?

  1. Dave Timoney says:

    Another aspect of this increased “basket-casery” is that the self-employed tend to produce lower tax receipts per capita, due to a combination of lower average wages, higher dependency on in-work benefits, and higher rates of tax evasion/avoidance.

    Consequently, the growth of self-employment (in its current, low-wage form) constitutes a fiscal challenge that feeds back into cuts in public expenditure. This will lead to further reductions in public sector jobs, which will trigger further migration into self-employment and downward pressure on wages. It’s a viscious spiral.

  2. Bina says:

    Well, all I can say as someone shoved out of direct public sector employment into public sector ‘self employment’ – with all the compliance costs transferred to me and the additional costs of finding, bidding for and delivering ‘someone else’s business’ – IT SUCKS! The UK is a ‘basket case’ that has been stripped of its assets by raiders who are blithely ramming through social changes that are going to come back and bite them! People are rapidly coming to the point where they have ‘nothing to lose’ by taking up a fight.

  3. julesbirch says:

    Fascinating post as always. As someone self-employed for more than 20 years I don’t take it at all personally but I think there are lots of different things going on here. There is a big difference in drivers between jobs becoming more decentralised (e.g. the media), downsizing (people becoming consultants), tax and national insurance evasion (e.g. construction) and pressure on unemployed to get them off the register (which seems to be behind a significant part of recent rise).
    One big factor in low US self-employment could be healthcare. Simply too risky to give up the corporate insurance package to go freelance?

  4. Pingback: International data shows there’s no need to panic about the rise in self-employment and micro-business : RSA blogs

  5. Shaun says:

    Don’t tell a conservative in the US, though. They don’t like it when you say things that hurt their feelings.

  6. Pingback: Do you pay a freelance web designer? - KoffeeKlatch

  7. I am looking at the effect this has on skills and training. As far as I can see from anecdotal evidence the lower paid self employed freelancer has little time to invest in external verified certified training. They tend to rely on free courses, and online courses done ad-hoc.

    At the same time though everyone wants certifies and ‘ologies’. So those who fall out of thel oop of ‘currency’ in terms of those, spiral into lower earnings, with less money and time. Those at the top of their game earnings wise are those nearly out of corporate life (who have figured out how to make the transition) who do not yet need to retrain.

    Is this anecdotal evidence related to any statistical data on freelancing and skills/training?

    Will the pending UK training levy reinstatement make any inroads on this since self employed freelancers will normally be below any threshold that is imposed..or excluded.

    Will will be creating not only a two system economy but a two system skils and training systems?

  8. Pingback: Do you pay a freelance web designer? | Business Contracts & GDPR Support

  9. Pingback: testing | Business Contracts & GDPR Support

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s