With corporate America providing less income security, many Americans are acting in self-defense by joining the free-agent economy, whether as full-time independent contractors or by using work found through platforms like Uber to supplement their pay. "One [job] protection is to go freelance," said trends expert Daniel Levine, director of The Avant-Guide Institute in New York City.
By all accounts, the number of free agents has been ticking up since the recession. In research released in 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 40.4 percent of U.S. workers had a contingent work arrangement in 2010 — meaning they were small-business owners, freelancers, contractors, temps, on-call workers, contract company workers and traditional part-timers.
With many companies giving employees a lot of autonomy anyway, traditional employees often already work in ways that are hard to distinguish from freelance workers, notes Nathan S. Gibson, the Woburn, Massachusetts-based vice president of independent contractor compliance for Randstad Sourceright US, a talent solutions firm. "The line gets blurrier and blurrier," he said.
Some experts now predict that even more than 40 percent of the U.S. population will be freelancing in some capacity in the near future. Creelman says it's hard to predict but says the percentage of free agents could rise as high as 60 percent in the next 20 to 30 years. It is a trend that became deeply rooted during the recession.
"After the 2009 and 2010 bust cycle, you didn't really see the reversal of the trend," said Mike Ettling, president of SAP SuccessFactors, which provides human resources solutions. "That whole rise of contingents is separating itself from the economic cycle. It's happening across all sectors — blue collar, white collar, everything."