The makeup of the American workforce is shifting. The traditional stability of the nine-to-five corporate desk job is slowly being replaced by the freedom and flexibility of self-employment. Independent workers in the United States number more than 40 million, according to the 6th Annual MBO Partners "State of Independence" study. Even though the number of full-time independents has decreased by 5 percent since 2015, the self-employed still overwhelmingly report that their work is satisfying, according to the study.
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The study also shows that the demographics of the independent workforce are changing. More than 6.7 million millennials currently work as independents, up from 1.9 million back in 2011. This age group constitutes more than 40 percent of a workforce that used to be made up of people who struck out on their own after years of building skills at private corporations. However, that doesn't mean baby boomers should be counted out: They still constitute a respectable 31 percent of the independent workforce.
From Classroom to Home Office
With the workforce getting younger each year and a continually lowering unemployment rate making standard private sector jobs more competitive, the idea of self-employment after graduation appeals to many students.
"Millennials are passionate about the benefits of independent work, like the ability to support their passions, control their own careers, and have a flexible schedule," says Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners, a provider of business and technology solutions for independent workers. "Self-employment is an ideal choice for younger workers who are willing to demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit and who may want to use multiple streams of income to find a 'perfect fit' for their later career path. In fact, half of millennials surveyed feel they can earn more money through gig-based work than they would through traditional employment."
Still, it's often the case that knowledge acquired in the classroom doesn't give the students the practical skills they need to succeed on their own. Students who want to reap the rewards of being their own boss straight after graduation need to take steps to acquire the skills and contacts necessary for success.
"Recent graduates may not have a large professional network and may have a harder time finding new clients," Zaino says. "Many companies also look for specific, nuanced skill sets in their independent population, and millennials may struggle if their skills are not yet refined or they cannot show proven past work in a dedicated area. Six in ten independent workers report getting work assignments because they offer a specialized skill that requires certification or special training. Millennials should take advantage of their schools' alumni groups and consider obtaining professional certifications to prove their qualifications."
Related: Gigging Your Way to Retirement
Stepping Off the Corporate Ladder
Independent work isn't just for millennials and Generation Z. Those with years of experience in the corporate world may have a lot to offer as freelancers, contractors, and consultants.
Also, the benefits aren't just for the client.
"Independent workers are a highly satisfied, well-compensated, and in-demand group of workers," Zaino says. "Traditional workers have a lot to gain by switching to independence."
While a lot of traditional employees might daydream about being their own boss, the prospect of taking the plunge and making it happen is a frightening one.
"The thing that often stops non-independents from becoming independent workers is the perception of risk; most non-independents think that being self-employed is very risky," Zaino says. "Our research shows, however, that independent work is actually very secure –43 percent of independent workers report that working solo is more secure than traditional employment, while 33 percent say that it's equally secure."
The risks aren't what they once were. Diversifying income among several clients actually makes independent work more stable than traditional work. Losing one client of several as a freelancer or consultant would have much less of an impact than a layoff at a traditional job. So, for those who've always feared the risk of going solo but are otherwise unsatisfied with their current job prospects, now might be the time to break out of the mold and give independent work a try.