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Why Everybody's Going Freelance

Whether they're getting forced out of their jobs or freeing themselves from their organizations, 17 million Americans are going solo. Here's what that means for the future of work.

More Americans are declaring their independence: as in the 17 million that self-indentified as indepenendent workers—as in freelancers, temps, self-employed consultants and the like—as of May 2013, up 10% from 2011.

That's according to MBO Partners, who does the taxes for such workers. And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the total number of indie workers is predicted to grow to 24 million in the next five years.

The new tendency to go independent is happening across demographics:

  • 36 percent are gen-Xers.
  • 33 percent are baby boomers.
  • 20 percent are millenials.
  • 11 percent are matures,
  • And equally male or female.

What's fascinating is why people are increasingly independent, which owes equally to shifts in the workforce and the steady-going nature of humans.

Reasons why: de-commitment, self-expression, and layoff

"Companies are less committed to commitment," Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners, told the Journal. They know that they don't need to take on full-timers—and the costs of providing people health benefits, we can surmise—in order to get their work done, so they keep trimming core staff.

And with that, there's more work for independents—who can find gigs through oDesk, Freelancer, and other services.

But it isn't all rosy: the MBO report found that one in seven freelancers were independent for reasons they couldn't control—layoffs, family relocation, and the like. And for those who choose the freelancing life, the reasons why are equally meaningful.

Here's my number, autonomy maybe?

In his über-engrossing Drive, Dan Pink unpacks the three factors that make people most engaged with their working lives—the one we're concerned with here is autonomy, since it's so close to independence.

Drive, animated.

Organizational psychologists are finding that self-expression has deep links to productivity—which we'll dive into deeply on Monday. It follows, then, that the autonomy of independence allows people to be more maximally self-expressive, and thus more maximally, sustainably engaged, and thus more successful over the long run.

Which sounds like an expanded—and idiosyncratic—career vocabulary, doesn't it?

Hat tip: The Wall Street Journal

[Image: Flickr user Gemma Stiles]

Add New Comment


  • Brandt 'Bubba' Page

    So awesome to see freelancing growing! We are building the 1st ever freelance marketplace for Freelance Salespeople! We would love your support and any other market research data like this article to support our cause. Thanks a ton!

  • Aassia Haroon Haq

    Gail, your comment gets to an important point -- the reclassification issue is indeed complicated, but much of this can be cured with a better understanding of the true costs to operate as an IC.  As a member of the industry, MBO has tried to educate both independent workers and companies as to how they can figure these costs into the billing rates so that payroll taxes, workers comp, benefits, are accounted for.  It’s critical both IC's and companies recognize this is a key part of the contracting process. Too often, companies don’t recognize the cost and then the IC is caught short paying for employment costs required by law.  On our side, we spend a great deal of effort trying to build free content and tools to assist – such as our free resource, the Independent’s Guide. As we work with more Fortune 1000's, we see progress in these areas with more and more contracting assignments factoring cost burdens into the work arrangement.  We hope that
    trend continues to mature. MBO sees itself as an advocate for independents. And we do believe a future of work in which more and more people choose independent work will only be successful if ICs and companies properly fund taxes and provide compliance with regulations. Thanks again for bringing to light an important – and often misunderstood - issue. And to others on this thread, thanks for some really interesting comments on appreciating and recognizing contribution - whether inside or outside the organization.

  • Zang

    OMG. You overthink stuff. Yawn. Just be brilliant and the rewards come. What a waste of time your epic response became!!!

  • Andi

    I have been freelancing for years now. I do it because in my mind, it's job stability, in a weird and twisted way. I rely on myself and my skills, wholly, to make sure income continues to come in. When I was working corporate, there was always that cloud hovering over me, ominously threatening a lay off to save the company money. As a freelancer, even when work is slow, it's on me to drum up more business or improve my skills. I trust my own work ethic more than I trust corporate job stability.

  • Gailmarcarelli

    Many of these freelancers are misclassified employees. A misclassified
    employee is an independent contractor who works for a company as a
    consultant, either incorporated or not, gets paid hourly, has a
    supervisor, and does the same work as a regular employee but does not
    receive the perks and benefits and certainly not credit for work done.
    There are IRS, DOL and EEOC rules that govern employee classification
    but many companies, even large corporations ignore the rules hoping they
    do not get caught or sued. Companies risk this because the cost savings are
    huge. It has been estimated that 30% of workers are misclassified. These
    workers do not get benefits, may not get even minimum wage, and
    certainly do not enjoy the freedom that the word "freelance" implies.
    They also must pay both employee and employer taxes. Misclassified
    employees have no safety net. There is no unemployment or worker's comp
    insurance paid for them. And because their employers do not consider
    them employees, they do not have claims under FLSA or Title VII or equal
    pay. I have experience with all aspects of employment. The worse is the
    the misclassified employee situation. You mention MBO Partners in your
    article. They have a program for misclassified employees which just
    makes matters worse for the unsuspecting "freelancer."

  • Chris Tucker

    Employers pay too low; reap too much profit. If you own your business, that profit goes to you.

  • Zangfest

    Then you reap ALL the profit! Ha ha. Hypocrite. You condemn business for exactly

  • Nosybear_Demon_at_Large

    Given the number one skill that every freelancer must possess is finding work and that we tend to devote most of our time to our most important skill, what does this say about the productivity or output of the freelancer?

  • Jpwhite Ch

    While it is often true at the beginning much effort is spent on getting work, it is like most other assets, you have to put in effort up front before that asset can become productive. Over time many freelancers find that work finds them and they can spend much of their time focused on producing what is perceived as highly competent, high value work. 

  • Richkonyc

    As one who has "freelanced" and consulted for the past two years, my biggest reason that I remain "autonomous" is not only the self-expression and freedom as mentioned above, but due to the appreciation that is conveyed from those who have hired me for my time, skills and abilities. Appreciation that was sadly missing from my former employer who never thanked anyone for any effort --big or small. Is it too much to ask that an employer says "thank you" along with giving you a paycheck? Just sayin'...

  • cyclemadness

    In my infrequent solo work, I found the same thing: when you don't work for a company, you're actually taken more seriously and appreciated more often. Sad, though.

  • Karen kidd

    Sad truth indeed ! Specially when you are a newbie, younger, the old ones wont listen to you and find ways to mock you down, I am intern, I don't get paid, at the beginning I was full of enthusiasm, ready to bring the necessary changes for the company, but then, for them I didn't know the things, things had always been the way it was and they didn't want to change it.
    So, now, I just want to get over with my internship and try something of my own.
    In one word, its FRUSTRATING 

  • Quiggles

    Karen, agree that it can be frustrating as an intern but perhaps turn your current experiences on their head and look at the learning those people around you, talk to them, listen to them and analyse them.  Try to shape your recommendations or changes so that they believe they have contributed to your idea in some manner and they'll buy into it, asking the question in such a way like "I've got this idea about this process and optimising it, what do you think would make it better?".  I've no doubt that you will be able to introduce your change if you try a different tactic with them :)