The growing independent worker phenomenon

The trend toward project or portfolio work is increasing across the workforce

Among the workforce phenomena already under way prior to the recession, but that has picked up pace since, is the increasing role of independent workers.

These soloists are typically defined as part- or full-time workers who don't violate the employee-defining guidelines set by various state labor, revenue and employment security departments. They are called by a variety of names, such as independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, self-employed, temporary, on-call workers, and even solopreneurs. Whatever you call them, their ranks are growing.

In September, MBO Partners, a service provider for independent workers and companies that hire them, released its second annual "State of Independence in America" survey. The survey found that the trend toward project or portfolio work was increasing across all demographic cohorts of today's workforce.

Conditions appear to be coalescing that allow for growth in this non-traditional employment sector. My own speculation is that the combination of more workers accepting, perhaps begrudgingly, the new normal of an uncertain economic environment, both domestically and globally, in combination with affordable technology improvements, is allowing for expansion of independent contracting.

Time will tell if independent contracting is a sustainable, non-cyclical and viable career option, but this survey reveals some interesting points of transition within a population historically used to finding economic security by way of a single employer.

Nearly 17 million workers operate as independents currently, up 1 million from last year. Projections are that 23 million will be their own boss in five years. And the number of independents who claim satisfaction and reduced anxiety with this career choice is also growing. Many, in fact, intend to hire employees as resources allow, suggesting that independent contracting may be a gateway to larger entrepreneurial ventures.

Significant advantages

The Gen Xers, those aged 33 to 49, seem to embrace this concept the most out of the demographic groups measured. Given their relative vitality coupled with some years of actual work experience, they are more open to taking control of their career and lifestyle destinies, certainly more so than their employer-loyal parents.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the Y (aged 21–32) workers appear to have a more mixed view of independent working, at least for now. The difficulty they have been facing in recent years entering the workforce and gaining valuable work experience may be skewing their attitude. After all, independence may not be a choice for them, but simply their school-of-hard-knocks reality.

Many baby boomers (aged 50–66), on the other hand, have their own reasons for resisting migration to this level of work autonomy. In short, they weren't brought up this way. Rather, dedication to an employer who in turn provided economic security has been their norm. But increasingly, this generation too is seeing the benefits of more self-reliance and determination as evidenced in the survey.

Increased flexibility, less workplace politics, more control over scheduling, and greater opportunities to practice their individual skill sets on their terms is being seen as attractive.

I see significant advantages for our collective careers in encouraging individual economic independence. Although it may never and perhaps should not ever entirely replace the traditional employer-employee relationship, there is nevertheless value in workers adopting a more flexible and adaptable economic position within the general workforce.

Maybe we could start preparing our youth by insisting that our schools replace some of their course load, which is of marginal importance for the mainstream — like algebra and medieval history — with financial literacy and entrepreneurism.

And boomers — accept it. You are being ejected from the traditional workforce sooner than you expected. Your choice is becoming the pasture or carving a niche that matters to the marketplace.

Change is only going to become more exponential, not less. Preparing yourself for independent contracting may be the best way to position your career for it.

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, is a regular blogger on NHBR Network. He can be reached at 603-724-2289 or