The Face of Today's Independent Worker

Contractors, freelancers, sole proprietors and other "cubicle fugitives" are becoming more and more common in today's economy.
October 04, 2012

Having your own business was once a rarity. 

I remember when I first took the leap. I’d go to a party and tell people what I did, and oohs and ahs would ensue. The admiration bestowed on me then was similar to that of a movie star or a neurosurgeon. Most could not even imagine being their own boss.

Today, they’re not just imagining it. They’re doing it.

MBO Partners, an advisor to organizations who want to efficiently manage their contingent workforces, recently released its second State of Independence in America study and the results of its first Independent Workforce Index. Since 2011, the independent workforce has grown by nearly a million people and currently contributes about one trillion dollars in revenue to the U.S. economy. 

Most interestingly, though, the research tells us a great deal about the face of the independent worker–defined as people who work at least 15 hours or more per week in non-traditional, non-permanent, full- or part-time employment–in 2012.

Age Matters

The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world may seem to be pervasive, but most Gen Y-ers (aged 21 to 32) still work for someone else. Independent workers today are mostly mid-career, with 35 percent counting themselves as Gen X-ers (aged 33 to 49) and 36 percent belonging to the Baby Boom generation (between age 50 and 66). Only eight percent of independent workers are over the age of 65.

According to MBO Partners, Gen Y workers are torn over the challenges and opportunities associated with being independent. Like everyone else, they appreciate flexibility, but are also more concerned with financial security than their freewheeling reputation would suggest. Most surprising? Only a third of independent Gen Y respondents have no intention of going back to a traditional job.

Members of Generation X seem best cut out for independent work. Sixty-eight percent of Gen X respondents chose independence proactively as opposed to falling into it because of the poor job market or other factors. Confident that they have the skills, experience and network to support a business, 76 percent of independent Gen X workers plan to continue on this path, and 12 percent intend to build a bigger operation. 

Independent Boomers were much more likely to have battle scars from the corporate world. Over half said that office politics played a role in their desire to escape to "solo-preneurship," and approximately 25 percent had been fired or laid off from a job prior to becoming an independent. 

Independents are Diverse and Secure

One of the best parts about being a solo-preneur in this hyper-connected world is that you can live anywhere, and indeed, independent workers reside almost equally in small towns, suburbs and cities across the country. They are found in all industries, and most aren’t starving. About half of independent workers earn over $51K a year, and 2.2 million earn more than $100K a year. Thirty-nine percent claim that they have less worry about sustaining their career than they did in the past.

This research silences those who claim that independent work is a passing fad or that it has peaked. As they just now emerge from the turbulence of the recession, organizations are hiring full-time employees cautiously, and contingent workers allow for much better risk management. So if you’re on your own now, you’d better prepare for more company–and more competition. Independent work is about to be mainstream.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

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