Independent workers and the changing workforce

Publication year


Publication Author

Rose J. Cho, Gail Cooper, Aine Duggan

Independent workers — those who work on a temporary basis for an organization or individual without becoming an employee — make up about a third of the U.S. workforce; that number is expected to reach 40 percent by 2020. Recent graduates and retirees, laid-off workers, low-wage workers and the long-term unemployed (estimated at 3.7 million people) are going into business for themselves or are becoming “discouraged workers” due to the shrinking pool of regular full-time work. Or they take on short-term jobs while they look for something more permanent. By choice or circumstance, “independence” is a daily hustle to make ends meet with gigs, consultancies, stints and small jobs that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. According to Thomas L. Friedman, these workers are “buoying our economy from below,” and the media hails them as self-determined risk-takers. Whether they make $100,000 a year or struggle to reach $25,000, call themselves freelancers, contractors, solopreneurs or microbusiness owners, they are moving through the same uncertain waters.

This primer is part of Re:Gender’s series on precarity — the economic insecurity that comes when work is uncertain, inconsistent and unable to offer a livable wage. The focus is on the independent workforce for two reasons. First, looking at these workers and their circumstances highlights that precarity applies to people across class and should not be considered solely a “poverty issue.” Second, the primer looks into the connection between US economists’ concernsabout middle-class job loss leading to greater economic instability and inequality and the fact that many of those leaving middle-class full-time work are showing up in the independent workforce. Are they empowered workers, liberated from standard workweeks and enjoying work/life balance? New drones in the “gig economy”? The “force that could save the American worker”? Are they leading the way to the New Industrial Revolution? Are they really “the future” or just another version of yesterday’s pieceworkers? These questions will be put into the context of economic trends, business decisions and the evolving relationship between worker and workplace.