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Economic growth rates are slowly returning to their pre-recession levels, the number of people in employment has reached a record high, and consumer confidence is drastically more upbeat than it was a year ago. Yet this should not disguise the fact that we have experienced one of the most seismic crashes and prolonged economic downturns in living memory – topped only by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Amidst all the economic doom and gloom, however, there is a transformation occurring in our economy that may change people’s lives for the better – namely the sharp rise in self-employment. The number of people who work for themselves has increased by 30 per cent since 2000, with the result that 15 percent of the workforce are now self-employed. Since 2008 a remarkable 600,000 new microbusinesses have been created, whereas all other business types have experienced static or negative growth. 

This trend throws up a number of important questions. What kinds of people are turning to self-employment? What has caused the large increase in recent years? And what effect is this having on the economy and wider society? Over the coming months the RSA will seek to provide answers to these questions through a combination of original surveys, data mining, interviews and desk research.

To date we have published two reports:

Salvation in a Start-up - This report examines the reasons for the growth in self-employment, and explores the opportunities and challenges facing people who work for themselves

Breaking the Mould - Here we look at the emergence and impact of online craft marketplaces like Etsy, and consider what their popularity signals about the way business might change in future

A further two reports will be published shortly. The first will examine the macroeconomic implications of a growing self-employed community, for example its impact on jobs growth, innovation and productivity. The second report will bring together the findings of the project and use these to set out a number of policy recommendations for government and others.

This RSA project is supported by Etsy.