THE TRUE DIVERSITY OF SELF-EMPLOYMENT
DISPELLING THE MYTH OF UNIFORMITY
Andrew Burke, Chair of the Centre for Research on Self-Employment and Dean of Trinity Business School, Trinity College, Dublin
For years now, the self-employed sector has been overshadowed by a myth. Looking for simple stories, the media have portrayed this diverse and complex sector as all the same – a homogeneous mass. The reality has been oversimplified until it has been almost replaced by the myth of uniformity.
In fact, the myth has spread so far that now, when the public read of exploitation in the gig economy or any other small part of the self-employed sector, they believe it applies across the board – to everyone from IT contractors to designers. And this puts pressure on politicians to apply simple, one-size-fits-all solutions which, although they may work for one part of the sector, can do significant damage to others.
The CRSE commissioned this report to dispel the myth of uniformity and explore the true diversity of self-employment in the UK. We used a range of indicators to measure the breadth and variety of the self-employed: from earnings and job security to work/life balance and opportunities for growth. It is a comprehensive study that should help to move policymakers away from a broad-brush, often harmful approach to the self-employed.
As well as discouraging a harmful approach, this report will also open up opportunities for positive policies – particularly in terms of vulnerable workers. For example, it shows that the highest concentrations of insecure, self-employed workers are in predominantly low-skilled sectors, while the best performing self-employed are in high-skilled sectors. That suggests that the best way to distinguish the vulnerable self-employed from the rest may actually be by skills and education. And because previous research has shown that the same applies to the employed sector, it seems that ‘self-employed status’ may often be wrongly diagnosed as the cause of vulnerability, when actually a lack of skills is the real problem.
Of course, while this far-reaching report does include a range of recommendations, the main idea is not to define policies, but to detail the true diversity of the self-employed sector. We are here to dispel the myth, not shape the reality behind it. We hope, however, that by mapping out the true variety of self-employment across the UK, we will open the door for policymakers to adopt a much more segmented, targeted and, ultimately, beneficial approach to this crucial and growing sector.