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What Is Self-Employment?

A self-employed person does not work for a specific employer who pays them a consistent salary or wage. Self-employed individuals, or independent contractors, earn income by contracting with a trade or business directly.

In most cases, the payer will not withhold taxes, so this becomes the responsibility of the self-employed individual.

Self-employed persons may be involved in a variety of occupations but generally are highly skilled at a particular kind of work. Writers, tradespeople, freelancers, traders/investors, lawyers, salespeople, and insurance agents all may be self-employed persons.

Key Takeaways

  • Those who are self-employed work solely for themselves and contract directly with clients.
  • Self-employment may not be subject to tax withholding, so those who are self-employed are responsible for paying their taxes.
  • Self-employment can provide a great deal of job flexibility and autonomy; however, it also comes with a greater degree of employment risk and a more-volatile income.


Self-Employed vs. Business Owner

Although the precise definition of self-employment varies among the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and private research firms, those who are self-employed include independent contractors, sole proprietors of businesses, and individuals engaged in partnerships.

A self-employed person refers to any person who earns their living from any independent pursuit of economic activity, as opposed to earning a living working for a company or another individual (an employer). A freelancer or an independent contractor who performs all of their work for a single client may still be a self-employed person.

A self-employed person is not often the same thing as being a business owner. The owner of a business, for instance, may hire employees and essentially become the boss—an employee-owner who operates and manages the business.

Alternatively, a business owner has an ownership stake but may not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. In contrast, a person who is self-employed both owns the business and is also the primary or sole operator. The taxation rules that apply to those who are self-employed differ from the employee or a business owner.

Independent contractors, sole proprietors of businesses, and individuals joined in a partnership are all self-employed persons.

Types of Self-Employment

Independent contractors are businesses or individuals hired to do specific jobs. They receive payment only for the jobs that they do. Because they are not considered employees, they do not receive benefits or workers’ compensation, their clients do not withhold taxes from their payments for work performed, and equal opportunity laws do not apply to them.

Examples of independent contractors include doctors, journalists, freelance workers, lawyers, actors, and accountants who are in business for themselves. It is worth noting that independent contractors are not just limited to specialized fields. An NPR/Marist poll conducted in December 2017 found that one in five jobs in the United States is a contracted worker as opposed to a full-time employee.

Sole proprietors are the only owners of unincorporated businesses, while partnerships involve two or more self-employed people who form a business together. Independent contractors, sole proprietors, and partnerships often hire a small number of employees to help them with their work.

According to a Gallup survey commissioned by Quickbooks and published in 2019, as of 2017 (the most recent figure as of early 2020), self-employed people and their employees accounted for 28% of the workforce in the United States (including people with multiple jobs who are both employees and self-employed). The industries with the highest rates of independently employed people include agriculture, construction, and business and professional services.

However, the report took pains to point out in an executive summary that “it is important to note this research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has clearly impacted the way Americans work today.” With the increasing prevalence of Americans working from home or losing jobs due to the pandemic, it’s very likely that the ranks of the self-employed have swelled even more.


The percent of the workforce that is self-employed as of 2017 (the most recent figure as of late 2020)

Special Considerations

Taxes for the Self-Employed

A self-employed person must file annual taxes and pay estimated quarterly tax. On top of income tax, they are also, typically, required to pay a self-employment tax of 15.3%. Of this tax, 12.4% goes to Social Security on the first $137,700 of earnings as of 2020 ($142, 800 in 2021) and 2.9% goes to Medicare tax.

The self-employed person will pay the employer and the employee portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes. Those who make less than an annual net profit of $400 are exempt from paying taxes on that income.

The gig economy, a phenomenon that emerged with digitalization, includes everything from Uber drivers to dog walkers to consultants. There are upsides and downsides to being a gig worker. The advantages are, of course, flexibility and control, but the disadvantages are that there is no guarantee of work, the pay is often low, and there are no employee benefits such as sick leave or a healthcare plan. Gig workers must be disciplined when it comes to paying taxes because they do not receive W-2s and must handle all tax withholding independently.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Independent Contractor Defined." Accessed Oc. 20, 2020.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center." Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Independent Contractor (Self-Employed) or Employee?" Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  4. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Coverage: Deciding Who Is Covered." Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  5. Marist College. "NPR Marist Poll National Nature of the Sample and Tables January 2018." Page 6. Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Tax Information for Partnerships." Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Sole Proprietorships." Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  8. Quick Books. "2019 Gig Economy and Self-Employment Report." Page 7. Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  9. Quick Books. "2019 Gig Economy and Self-Employment Report." Page 5. Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "Self-Employment Tax (Social Security and Medicare Taxes)." Accessed Oct. 20, 2020.