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Self-employment is the economic trend that everyone is talking about. Why? Because the number of people in this line of work has grown by 30 per cent since 2000, with the result that a record 1 in 7 of the workforce now answer to themselves.

Such is the magnitude of the recent increase that self-employment accounted for 90 per cent of all job growth during the recessionary years of 2008-13. Should these growth rates continue, the RSA predicts that the number of people in self-employment could soon outgrow the size of the public sector workforce. By anyone’s standards, this would be a significant moment in the UK’s economic history.

But enough of the numbers. The important question we should be focusing on is how our economy and society can respond. How do we distinguish between false self-employment and genuine self-employment? Should we really be encouraging self-employment in schools? How can we help the self-employed access mortgages, pensions and insurance? What is the future of employment services in the age of self-employment? Should the state extend greater welfare coverage to people who work for themselves? And should they continue to be treated differently under the tax system?

Alas, there has been a conspicuous absence of deep thinking about this phenomenon. The tendency on the left is to skate over these questions, assuming as they do that self-employment is just a cyclical blip, and that if we ignore it long enough the phenomenon will die away. In contrast, the right seem to grab onto the easiest answers, which typically involves saying that the self-employed should have access to all the rights and few of the responsibilities. A case in point is welfare and taxation. While many groups have called for the self-employed to receive more protections such as Statutory Maternity Pay, nobody seems to have acknowledged how this would be paid for.

Against the backdrop of fuzzy debate, the RSA, Google and Etsy have decided to organise a Self-employment Summit that will bring together leading thinkers to discuss the ins and outs of this phenomenon. Panellists include Will Hutton, Polly Toynbee, Emma Jones, Rohan Silva, Stella Creasy MP and Jo Swinson MP. We hope the Summit will add another layer to people’s understanding of self-employment, and move the public debate away from platitudes and towards thoughtful commentary. For us, it comes back to an essential question: how do we enable more people to take part in meaningful self-employment, which at its best enables them to flourish as creative individuals.

If that doesn’t sound too daunting or dry, then do join us by viewing the Summit through our livestream service, or by watching the videos afterwards (I’m afraid we’ve sold out of the real-deal places).

The RSA’s Self-employment Summit will take place on Tuesday 3 February from 10:30 – 17:30. Find out more here.

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