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Freelance: A workplace revolution

Seven years ago, roughly 16 million people were working independently. Today, estimations climb all the way to 42 million.

Freelance: A workplace revolution

It’s noon on a Wednesday and my friend Tom Buchok, a talented interactive web developer, has just finished his weekly guitar lesson. After a bite to eat and a glance through the day’s news, he opens his computer and gets to work. Typically this is the moment when a disgruntled boss would enter Tom’s office and bark at him for his abuse of the company’s “flexible working hours.” In this case, however, Tom is his own boss and smiles as he settles in for his most productive hours.

Tom is just one example of what many have referred to as the “freelance revolution.” Seven years ago, roughly 16 million people were working independently. Today, estimations climb all the way to 42 million. Shocking, right? But this is only the beginning. Gene Zaino, the president and CEO of MBO Partners, a company that connects independent workers to traditional employers, recently predicted that this number will balloon to 70 million by 2020. If Gene is correct, and I believe that he is, more than half of America’s workforce will soon be reporting to no one but themselves.

Signs of this transformation have already begun showing up in Minnesota, and people are looking to our state as a trendsetter. “We have already seen a larger shift towards independent workers,” says Kyle Coolbroth, co-founder of CoCo, a popular collaborative workspace for freelancers, startups, and small businesses that has taken over the old trading floor of the Grain Exchange in downtown Minneapolis. “CoCo came to life based upon some observations of the trends that [are] shaping a new working world.” Collaborative workspaces are receiving increasing attention, and CoCo—thanks to those keen observations—has been touted as one of the world’s best.

This dramatic change in our workforce raises an intriguing question: What causes people to trade a seemingly safe, more traditional career path for a riskier, independent one? It’s important to note that the majority of independent workers (55 percent) choose this route instead of being forced into a freelance career, which may surprise many readers.

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Job market experts have begun to study this cultural shift, and the early reports are undeniable. Elance, a job site for online freelance workers, released results from a 2011 survey showing that freelancers are happier working independently (61 percent) than traditional employees (11 percent). The survey found that full control over work schedules was the most influential factor for the rise in job satisfaction. The freedom to shuttle the kids to school or take guitar lessons during the middle of the day sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Almost as important as a flexible schedule, the survey found, was the ability be selective with the kinds of work they do. Our interests change over time, and work that may be stimulating today can become mindless and robotic tomorrow. Acquiring new skills and reinventing oneself is much easier when working outside the confines of a rigid corporate structure.

In my experience building Heroic, a website that matches busy homeowners with independent service providers in their community, I’ve found that the workers using our site have a wide variety of backgrounds. Those with a self-described “professional” work history are interested in the same jobs as those with “skilled-trade” experience. They want jobs in multiple areas and they often have the varied skills to perform them well. Experienced tutors are signing up to walk dogs, and computer support specialists are offering their skills as handy men and women. Our users say they’ve chosen to diversify their work—and not out of a desperate need for more income. People value stimulation and variety in their work, which can be difficult to obtain while punching in and out every day.

“I [worked for] a gigantic corporation and this is 1,000 times more fun,” says Angie Glotzbach, an independent social media marketer. Her LinkedIn profile summary reads: “My background is an eclectic one.”

Angie is not alone in her quest for more independence. In the study by MBO Partners, 80 percent of independent workers who choose this route claim they don’t want to return to traditional employment. Additionally, some 28 million “traditional” employees say they plan to make the switch to freelance in the next two years. With less than 50 percent of the traditional workforce claiming satisfaction with their current work situation, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

As a result, our definition of “career” is transforming. Today, people are piecing together a string of mini-careers. Now that quick, neatly encapsulating title that answers the icebreaker, “So what do you do?” could instead be a list of disparate jobs. Think of how much more interesting all that small talk will become. If we’re lucky, we might never again have to discuss the weather in order to fill the awkward silence.
While this new class of workers may prove to be the most versatile our economy has ever seen, there’s still much uncertainty and many challenges ahead. Fundamental changes will have to be addressed in health care, unemployment benefits, and income taxation.

This may be the greatest transformation in our country’s workforce since the Industrial Revolution, and our understanding of its composition and motivations will strengthen as more comprehensive research emerges. What is clear already, however, is that more people are finding greater satisfaction in their work. And with all the dismal economic news these last few years, it’s a development that should be warmly embraced.

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