What’s happening to the earnings of the self-employed? - RSA

What’s happening to the earnings of the self-employed?

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  • Picture of Benedict Dellot
    Benedict Dellot
    Former Head of the RSA Future Work Centre and Associate Director
  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment
  • Enterprise

This week the ONS published a brief report on the rise in self-employment. The headline is that the number of people working for themselves has reached a record 4.6 million, the equivalent of 15 per cent of the workforce. This is the highest figure since records began 40 years ago.

Yet it wasn’t the aggregate numbers the media paid attention to. It was the stats on their earnings, which the ONS report had fallen by 22 per cent in real terms between 2008 and 2012 – quite a staggering fall. Others have highlighted a similar trend, including ourselves and the likes of the Resolution Foundation. In short, the message of the data is that while being your own boss may be more fulfilling, it can also be financially precarious.

While I broadly subscribe to this position, I do increasingly wonder whether we may be exaggerating the income crashes and shortfalls of the self-employed. Here are three reasons why:

The first concerns how the data is analysed and reported. One of the mistakes we often make is to lump part-timers with full-timers, which serves to bring down the average earnings figure. For example, the Resolution Foundation highlighted in its recent report that the self-employed earned 40 per cent less than the typical employed person, yet this (I believe) was based on data that included both part-timers and full-timers. Separate them out and what happens is that the wage differential between full-timers shrinks to 20 per cent (as per the graph below).

Moreover, one of the reasons why we may have seen a large fall in aggregate self-employed earnings since the recession is because most of the new joiners are part-timers. In fact, since the start of 2014 the number of people in part-time self-employment has increased by 100,000. That’s a 10 per cent growth in the space of little under a year, and is likely to have a noticeable impact on the earnings data (when it comes out).

self-employed earnings

The second caveat relates to how the self-employed report their earnings. Many suspect that those who work for themselves are undeclaring a hefty proportion of their income for tax purposes – what is effectively tax evasion. The tax expert and campaigner Richard Murphy thinks one pound in every ten of sales in the UK is not declared to the tax authorities, and that as much as half of this relates to self-employed business activity. Added to this is tax avoidance, where a company owner might pay him/herself a minimum wage and the rest of their earnings in dividends so as to duck tax obligations. The problem is that the data collected by HMRC and ONS will often not take into account these payment loopholes, meaning that the income of the self-employed is inaccurately reported as being lower than it really is.

The third and final caveat is that the income of the self-employed may simply be more volatile. In other words, they may see their income crash during the economic downturns but then increase quite sharply as soon as the economy returns to full health. Why should their income be more voltatile? Partly because the self-employed are more likely to try and retain their position and accept less hours and pay in a downturn compared to those working for someone else. Put another way, a business owner will likely swallow a £5-10k reduction in income to save his or her business, but a person working in a conventional job would probably walk away – and this in turn has a knock on effect on the earnings figures. Indeed, we know that during the recession underemployment within the self-employed community grew faster than among employees.

None of this of course is to say that the self-employed do not face financial challenges. They undoubtedly earn less than typical employees, and face several other challenges including limited access to sick pay, pensions and maternity/paternity pay. Indeed, these are issues we’ll be exploring in a new project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But what is clear is that a closer look at the data reveals that life is not all financial doom and gloom for people who want to work for themselves.

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  • I've been self-employed for 11 years. Elizabeth makes some good points; right now I am working 60+ hours a week but there have been droughts too. Part of the point of a business is that you operate across years to manage those peaks and troughs (or you should) so a straight year on year comparison is not always valid.

    All this is quite apart from the unjustified allegations about ducking taxes, a familiar jibe from the uninformed employed. My rates went down 25% from their 2008 peak and are still over 12% down. My costs (insurance, fares, marketing, accountancy) stayed high. That's a lot more than a £10K loss.

    Having said all that, I love being self-employed and it has served me well. Just don't turn us into the new fat cat enemies.

  • What is the definition of Full-time vs part-time? Is it the regular definition (part-time being a few hours or days in the working week)? Or is it that full-time means fully employed for the year and part-time means employed on short-term contracts and out of work for parts of the year?

    Is there not also a split between those who actively choose to go self-employed and those who are forced into it? Those who choose it as a lifestyle option will possibly have planned out business development strategies and will be keen on working to develop new leads into creating new business, thereby creating longer-term contracts or repeat business with clients and are likely to be fully employed.

    I speak as someone who had to register as self-employed last year in order to take up the offer of a three month fixed term contract. I was working full-time hours for those three months. But since then I have had no work. My salary while I was full-time employed would have affected the statistics favourably. Average it out over the year (since September 2013 when I took up the contract) and it's significantly less income overall. I had no prior interest in becoming self-employed and had only done it to take up this specific offer.

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