Worker Voices Special Brief: Self-Employment, Dreams Versus Reality delves into a theme that surfaced during a series of focus groups with 167 U.S. workers and job seekers without a four-year degree: Many people want to work for themselves.

Led by the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Philadelphia, the Federal Reserve’s Worker Voices Project looked beyond the numbers to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on how workers without a four-year degree perceive and navigate employment.

People weighed the need for independence against opportunities to generate income. Some participants in the focus groups felt they were pushed into self-employment through negative workplace experiences such as low pay, poor treatment, and a lack of flexibility. Others were drawn to the idea of having more independence and agency over their work lives.

But people found the reality of self-employment did not align with expectations. Although they aspired to earn more income and achieve financial freedom, many ended up doing gig or informal work that didn’t provide much financial stability. This research sheds further light on experiences with gig work and the informal economy, which are often invisible in hard data about our labor market. Learning about the first-hand experiences of everyday workers and job seekers adds depth and breadth to the Federal Reserve’s understanding of economic conditions and helps us achieve our dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment.

Read the report on the Fed Communities website.