The 9 to 5 grind, once a staple of American work life, is seeing a significant shift. According to McKinsey’s 2022 American Opportunity Survey, a whopping 36 percent of employed individuals, roughly 58 million Americans, now identify as independent workers. This marks a notable increase from 2016, when only 27 percent of the workforce fell into this category.
Independent work spans various professions, from high-paying roles like actors and lawyers to gig-based jobs such as delivery drivers or short-term property rentals. Even those with side hustles are considered independent workers. The appeal of flexibility and autonomy draws about a quarter of survey respondents, but interestingly, 62 percent of them express a preference for more stable, permanent employment.
So, who are these independent workers, and what economic trends are fueling this workforce shift?
The independent workforce cuts across all demographics but tends to skew toward younger individuals and those with lower incomes. Almost half of surveyed immigrants identify as independent workers. While a third of independent workers report earning over $150,000 annually, the majority express concerns about the stability of their employment, with 54 percent citing this as a worry compared to 35 percent of permanent workers.
Challenges faced by independent workers are glaring. Many lack access to basic needs like affordable healthcare, nutritious food, convenient housing, transportation, and childcare. Only 32 percent of independent workers receive health insurance from their employers or unions, compared to half of permanent workers. Twice as many independent workers rely on government assistance programs.
Despite these challenges, optimism persists, especially among first-generation immigrants who view gigs as a path to opportunity. Over a third of independent workers foresee more economic opportunities in a year, compared to a fifth of overall workers. Additionally, more than 40 percent expect continuous economic growth over the next five years, in contrast to about a third of all respondents.
The surge in independent workers in the United States can be attributed to several factors. Technology, enabling remote work, has played a pivotal role. The gig economy was further fueled by the rise of ridesharing and digital food delivery platforms. The pandemic-induced layoffs pushed many towards freelancing for either additional income or a desire for greater independence. Moreover, inflation may be driving lower-income workers towards gig opportunities.
The choice of independent work over permanent employment is driven by necessity for more than a quarter of respondents. Interestingly, a quarter pursue independent work because they enjoy it, a sentiment particularly strong among high earners. Another quarter values the flexibility and autonomy it provides.
For employers, understanding the shift towards independent work is crucial. A significant number of Americans are willing to forgo the stability of permanent jobs for the flexibility of freelancing. Companies, especially small businesses and start-ups, are increasingly leveraging the advantages of a more flexible, on-demand workforce.
As we navigate the changing dynamics of the freelance economy, the landscape is evolving. It’s not merely a cyclical trend but a new normal. The data is clear: the freelance economy is here to stay, with enterprises, in particular, embracing the strategic use of independent talent. The gig economy, once a side note, is now a prominent player in the ever-evolving world of work.