The number of people choosing to become independent workers surged by a record-breaking 34% in 2021, jumping from 38.2 million in 2020 to 51.1 during the year.
“An undercurrent that has been simmering reached a boiling point when people were forced out of the office and into alternative work arrangements,” observed Miles Everson, CEO of MBO Partners, which gathered the data for its latest Annual State of Independence report. “This is the largest shift we have seen in the workforce in decades.”
Among the takeaways from 2021:
- Workers cut the cord on fixed locations. Freed from the confines of working in a single onsite location, many took remote work on the road. The number of “digital nomads” rose from 10.9 million in 2020 to 15.5 million in 2021, a 42% increase. Most of these were traditional workers, but the number of independent digital nomads rose 15%, from 4.6 million in 2020 to 5.3 million in 2021.
- Collaborators are the new colleagues. Independents refer and share work with other independents. Indeed, 25% find assignments through their network of colleagues. In the past 12 months, 25% of full-time independents said they’d teamed up with independent workers or microbusinesses in their work, up from 19% in 2020. Collaboration is even more important for independent creators, with over half (55%) reporting that they team up on projects with other content creators.
- Independents are haunted by their own 1%. The U.S. has long been seen as a two-tier economy, with those at the top thriving while many at the bottom struggle. This effect has been replicated in the independent workforce, MBO Partners said, with those having in-demand skills and credentials able to charge a premium for their work.
- Inflation drives Moonlighting 2.0. The rising cost of living and the loss of payroll jobs is driving more people to supplement their income with independent work. Part-time and occasional independents are the fastest-growing portion of the independent workforce, said MBO. Of those who became part-time independents in the past year, 73% cited supplementing their income as their reason.
- Platforms become independent launching pads. As independent work has become more mainstream, new businesses have appeared to facilitate it. Online platforms and marketplaces are powerful facilitators that let independents find work, learn new skills and explore new markets.
The trajectory of these platforms was one of the most powerful growth stories in MBO’s survey. In 2011, only 3% of independents reported using an online talent platform in the previous 12 months. However, in 2021 some 40% said they had done so in the past year. An even higher number – 43% – said they planned to use an online talent platform in the coming 12 months.
By Mark Feffer
Mark Feffer is executive editor of RecruitingDaily and the HCM Technology Report. He’s written for TechTarget, HR Magazine, SHRM, Dice Insights, TLNT.com and TalentCulture, as well as Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Staffing Industry Analysts. He likes schnauzers, sailing and Kentucky-distilled beverages.
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