More people are in work now than ever before and unemployment has hit historic lows. In fact, the revival of the UK labour market has been the standout success story of recent years. But as concerns about the number of people in work have subsided, a new debate has arisen. Propelled by the Taylor Review, attention has shifted towards the quality – not just quantity – of work in the UK.

In many ways, this new agenda can be seen as a reaction to new ways of working – not least the rapid rise in self-employment. Self-employment undoubtedly played a crucial role in the recovery of the labour market, rising by 50 per cent since 2000, so that now, one in seven of us work for ourselves. This boom, combined with a flood of media attention, has piqued people’s interest in the motivations and experiences of the self-employed.

Strangely, however, recent debates and publications on the issue of good work have overlooked the self-employed. When grappling with the indicators of “good work”, for instance, the government has turned to measures designed for employees. Meanwhile, driven by a simplistic media narrative, the public debate on self-employment has been reduced to tackling “bogus” self-employment, with little understanding or interest in how this way of working affects wellbeing. But actually, “good work” may mean something very different for employees and the self-employed.  Anecdotally, for instance, we know the self-employed highly value autonomy, flexibility and meaningful work.

That is why IPSE and IPA’s research project, Working Well for Yourself: What makes for good self-employment?, is so timely. In addition to examining the current state of UK self-employment, we set out to understand what exactly determines whether the self-employed have good experiences in their work or not, to bring the voice of the UK’s 4.8 million self-employed into the wider debate on good work.

The research reveals that good self-employment is about much more than money. For example, the self-employed seem to see developing skills and knowledge as a vital measure of career progression – even more than rising earnings. This suggests government policy needs to be directed towards helping the self-employed develop their skills. There was also the revelation that, contrary to the widespread belief that self-employment is a lonely way of working, self-employed people actually see their relationships with their clients as a positive part of their lifestyle and a key determinant of overall satisfaction.

The research also exposes areas where there is room for improvement. Highlighting the glaring differences between employee and self-employed experiences, the research shows one key area dragging down self-employed satisfaction: poor payment culture. Whether it is chasing payments from clients or being asked to work for free, poor payment culture is negatively affecting self-employed satisfaction. The government should put tackling poor payment practices at the heart of efforts to improve job satisfaction for the self-employed.  

As the debate about good work grows, it’s important for policymakers and business leaders to understand and acknowledge the distinctive nature of self-employment. The practical recommendations in this report should help government develop policies that reflect the realities of self-employment, ensuring that as it continues to grow, it remains a positive career choice for everyone.

Imogen Farhan is Policy and External Affairs Officer at the association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE)