The Growing Independent Population: Is the Genie Out of the Bottle?

By MBO Partners | January 4, 2023

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Key Points

Companies considering establishing or expanding a contingent labor workforce program may find excellent support in our 2022 State of Independence report.

On the other hand, business leaders may wonder if the currently robust independent population is only temporary.

Looking at patterns across our 12 years of research can help leaders get a feel for the direction that the independent labor force is going.

Companies considering the viability of establishing or expanding a contingent labor workforce program may find excellent support in our 2022 State of Independence report. It marks the second year of forecast-breaking results in the independent professional population, perhaps indicating that the workforce disruption of the pandemic years has left a mark on the way that independents and their clients work.

On the other hand, business leaders may wonder if the currently robust independent population is only temporary. Will the numbers swing back to pre-pandemic levels? As more companies move to blended workforces and engage independent professionals for more strategic roles, will the skills supply be sufficient to meet the demand?

While it is too soon to offer statistic-based predictions for future years, looking at patterns across our 12 years of research can help leaders get a feel for the direction that the independent labor force is going. This insight can help them effectively plan and execute contingent labor workforce programs.

The Post-Pandemic Surge

In 2020, the year that the lockdown challenged businesses to find new ways to continue operations, our State of Independence report looked back at the first 10 years of our survey. Over that period, we noted a continuous core of full-time independent professionals in the US labor force whose size increased and decreased in an inverse relationship with the job market.

While the 2020 report also reflected the workforce disruption with low numbers across the board, results of our surveys in 2021 and 2022 show a marked upswing from previous years. The initial reaction to the disruption showed up in 2021’s numbers, 51.1 million compared to 38.2 million in 2020, while the continued increase to 64.6 million in 2022 points to sustained change in how work gets done. The total population of independents in 2022 blew well past our 2020 forecast of 46.5 million by 2025, with significant increases in the Full-Time and Occasional independent segments.

Independents-by-Choice Are a Super Majority

2015 was the first year we included all three types of independents—Full Time, Part Time, and Occasional—in our research. Since then, the percentage of those who have chosen independence as their work style (as opposed to a stop-gap strategy after losing a job or other critical event) has steadily risen. The highest percentage (67%) was reported in 2019, right before the pandemic exerted its influence on the market. In 2021 and 2022, percentages dropped—63% and 64%, respectively—but remained well above 2015 (58%). In other words, nearly two-thirds of independent professionals today are independent by choice.

While an increase in the independent-by-choice percentage over the years is worth noting, another aspect of this measurement may offer further insight into the significance of the independent workforce.  Before 2021, the number of independents by choice ranged between a low of 22.5 million (2020) and a high of 27.5 million (2019).  In 2021, while the percentages stayed within the range of the other years, the population of independents-by-choice jumped significantly, to 32.2 million.  Another jump to 41.3 million in 2022 showed a 183% increase over the 2020 low.

Today’s Market Is Fertile Ground for Independents

Our annual research includes queries about the factors that drive professionals to go independent. Across all 12 years, four motivators were consistent:

  • Increased work/life flexibility
  • Better control over one’s schedule
  • Prefer being one’s own boss
  • Ability to pursue work based on passions

Recent trends have opened the door for more people to pursue independent work in some form. For example, while remote work was becoming a work style prior to the pandemic, companies were generally slow on the uptake. Even businesses that allowed remote work often limited this option to certain roles on the basis that some jobs could only be done efficiently and securely onsite. COVID lockdown turned things around as companies were forced to solve challenges around remote work. On the other side of the pandemic, remote work opportunities were much greater for both traditional and independent workers.

Digital nomadism is another work style that has gained traction in the post-pandemic world. “Working on the road” is a type of remote work pursued by 16.9 million independents in 2022, more than double the 7.3 million in 2019. Today many companies have codified digital nomadism into their policies for employees and contractors, enabling further growth in this segment of the independent population.

Another trend that we focused on starting in 2021 is the Creator Economy. These independent workers generate income by producing digital content for their own businesses or their clients. Sixty-nine percent of the 8.1 million Creators in 2022 work part-time, allowing many to pursue passion projects as side gigs.

Yes, the Genie Is Out of the Bottle

These trends—remote work, digital nomadism, and the Creator Economy—support the flexibility, control, and autonomy that are very important to independents. As the technologies that form the foundation of each trend continue to evolve and become more pervasive, these ways of working will likely continue to attract more people to the independent workforce.

This is good news for companies seeking the business advantages of a blended workforce.  As we observed in our 2022 State of Independence report, independent work is now mainstream in all its forms, and we expect to see continued growth in this labor segment. Business leaders seeking strategic value from contingent labor can launch or expand their independent talent acquisition programs, knowing that the genie is out of the bottle and independent professionals will continue to be a significant force in the work environment.

Check out our 2022 State of Independence Report to get more details about the growing independent workforce.

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