|Simone Baribeau Contributor|
But by the time the
The final indignity was an orientation workshop for kindergarten. Ms. Rojas found out that next year, when her daughter enrolled in public school, she would face even more demands on her time. Something had to yield: Either she would have to put her daughter in after-school child care or stop working full time.
In January, Rojas made a life-changing – and risky – decision: She quit her job to start her own practice with another lawyer.
“I couldn’t keep this up,” says Rojas. “I would prefer to be the one picking her up, doing her homework with her, knowing what she’s doing OK in, knowing what she’s struggling with, taking her to her ballet and piano and all that stuff, and you can’t do that if you’re working full time.”
Rojas symbolizes a fundamental shift in the American labor force – people becoming independent workers. From the high-tech halls of
In some cases, they are being forced out on their own by businesses cutting costs or avoiding benefit payments. In other cases, the move is by choice – a desire to control their lives and shape their futures.
The rise of the independent workforce is reshaping the life-work balance for thousands of Americans and altering the relationship many others have with their employers. Its emergence
In today’s work world, people shift jobs and careers at the click of a mouse. Now comes the independent economy, which takes the culture of flexibility one step further – with some people working on their own terms, others scrambling for whatever short-term gigs they can find, and virtually all missing out on traditional company-provided dental plans and 401(k)s.
“We’re at a pivot point,” says
Numbers highlight the growing trend:
•The share of workers that had temporary, contract, or other nontraditional jobs rose from 11 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2013, according to a survey of large companies by Staffing Industry Analysts.
•A business survey conducted by
•Since 2011, the overall number of independent workers has grown more than 15 percent, to 17.7 million, according to a survey from
And experts for all three research companies expect the growth to continue. Staffing Industry Analysts projects that the number of temporary employees, a subset of independent workers, will grow 3.1 percent annually through 2022, compared with overall employment growth of 1 percent.
Analysts cite a plethora of reasons for the rise in nontraditional jobs. Companies are looking for more flexible workforces. Millennials want more control over their time. Technology is allowing workers and businesses to find each other more efficiently than ever before.
The shift was also accelerated by the Great Recession.
“The perfect storm behind the growth [in independent workers] is a mixture of the downturn forcing companies to look to this type of labor … and then realizing the benefits,” says
The effect on workers is mixed. Many people opt out of full-time jobs so they can choose the type of work they want and the venue in which to do it – on the back deck, for instance, with an espresso in their hand and an Irish setter at their feet. But the tailored schedule and canine companionship comes with a price – less predictable paychecks and no paid vacations.
Who wins and loses in the flex economy?
• • •
The big health-care provider wasn’t doing well at the time. Coming out of the recession and facing stiff competition, JHS had lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the previous four years. So the company decided to lay off 900 full-time employees and hire 350 workers on a flexible schedule in a bid to make the troubled network more competitive. Ms. Dumond was one of the employees who received a notice: She could either come back to work as a part-timer or look for work elsewhere.
The native of
Still, she wants to go back to being officially full time. Last December, when a family member died, she was told she would have to use vacation days to attend his funeral, rather than take a funeral leave, which is offered only to full-time employees. And while her hours have been consistent in the past, she has no guarantee that they won’t be cut in the future.
Dumond’s predicament reflects a new reality behind the rise of the independent economy. Traditionally, temporary and other contingent workers have been the first fired, first rehired in times of economic distress. The recent downturn, in one way, was no exception. Companies quickly shed their payrolls of temporary employees early in the recession – their numbers declined by more than 30 percent from the beginning of the downturn to its lowest point.
But this time, almost five years after the official end of the recession, many companies haven’t sought to rehire workers and return to prerecession employment levels. Instead, some have found that having a large nontraditional workforce makes them more competitive.
“Companies are shifting the way they’re choosing to hire. They want more flexibility, more agility,” says
A more adaptable workforce can help companies more easily scale production up or down to meet demand. While industries across the board are embracing a less permanent workforce, the technology and health-care industries have been among the most aggressive in adopting it.
“Companies are going to become less of a parent,” providing benefits and ushering their workers down predetermined career paths, says
That was certainly the professed rationale behind the JHS moves. The health-care system’s president and CEO,
“I would not have made these decisions … if there were any credible alternative,” he told county commissioners in
In 2012, the hospital system turned a profit for the first time since 2007, which
“Now it’s been almost two years, and I’m still working my full-time hours” without being considered a full-time employee, she says. “To be more secure, I would like my status to be changed.”
• • •
Not everyone is convinced that the sudden boom in independent employees represents a permanent shift in the economy. Some believe the trend won’t outlive a robust economic recovery. Their argument is that companies may want a flexible workforce, but in a stronger economy they will have to compete for talent and hire full-time workers.
“It’s an open question,” says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the
But at least two factors suggest it may be the new normal: new technology and increased access of independent employees to benefits. The Internet has made it a lot easier for people to market their skills directly to clients.
“[Professional networking site]
And it’s not just
Indeed, two of the fastest-growing fields of independent workers are personal services, such as fitness training, dog walking, and wealth management, and creative arts, such as writers and musicians, which benefit from Internet marketing, says Emergent Research’s
Companies looking to hire temporary workers are also aided by what can be done with the click of a mouse. Advanced scheduling software that lets businesses determine how many employees they need daily, or even hourly, has led retail outlets to increasingly hire on-call workers.
Another factor driving the gig economy is that independent workers no longer have to be tied to a corporation to receive benefits. The passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” has caused some companies to replace full-time workers with part-timers to avoid having to pay for coverage, but it has also made it easier, and in some cases cheaper, for independent workers to get health insurance. Private entities, such as
• • •
He works as an Internet marketer while traveling the world. He got the idea from a freelancer he met, serendipitously, on a trip to Thailand.
“It just totally blew my mind that this was a thing,” says the 20-something from
The bat was hardly the most exciting encounter he’d had that day. In the morning, Ginsburg watched a panther stalk an impala. In the afternoon, on safari, he witnessed a pod of hippopotamuses flash their “fangs” at a watering hole. In between, he did some work – responding to e-mails about monthly Web traffic reports. Ginsburg will return in a few days to
Ginsburg represents perhaps the extreme end of the independent worker movement. It would be easy to dismiss him as just another footloose youth traveling the world while he can – this generation’s equivalent of backpacking around Europe.
Except in this case Ginsburg is actually working while he’s being itinerant, something that an interconnected world allows him to do. Like many other Millennials, he eschews the corporate world of wingtips and pumps. To be sure, that sense of freedom may not last as young people get older and confront their first mortgage payments and the cost of high-tech strollers. But for now, at least, they are adding to the rise of the independent class.
Some 54 percent of Millennials 18 and older want to start a business, or have already started one, according to a 2011 survey by the
The iGeneration is more likely to quit a job to work for themselves: 57 percent of Millennial freelancers who formerly had traditional jobs say they left because they wanted to work on their own, compared with 42 percent of people from other generations, according to a survey published by oDesk in
“The younger generation is really pushing flexibility; they don’t have a geographic perception,” says FlexJob’s Ms.
Of course, you still have to make money, whether you’re working out of an Internet cafe in
Ginsburg has his struggles but is surviving. He now earns
“I would do anything possible not to get a traditional job,” says Ginsburg, sitting in front of a metallic elephant head mounted on the wall at the lodge in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. “I really enjoy this lifestyle.”
Some actually find it more lucrative to work on their own. Web developer
“I have my finger on the pulse of the consumer,” he says from his home office in
• • •
Mr. Cronin’s experience is hardly universal, though. Many independent workers don’t even get to choose their own projects, much less make a platinum living.
As many as one-third of nontraditional workers are “task takers,” meaning they take whatever work a company that won’t hire them full time channels their way, says King. In the retail sector, more employees are getting pushed into on-call jobs, in which they often don’t know when they will work until moments before a shift begins.
In other cases, the problem isn’t uncertain hours as much as uncertain status. Critics accuse many companies of classifying people who are clearly employees as independent contractors, so they can block them from joining unions, negotiating pay increases, and being eligible for unemployment compensation and other benefits.
“For truck drivers and many others in related blue-collar occupations, classification can mean the difference between a decent, family-supporting job, and working in poverty,” says economist
Certainly it’s been a struggle for
But, he says, he has little independence, drives a company truck instead of his own, and can’t negotiate his rates. Now a father of two,
“It’s degrading,” says Paz, speaking while pulled over from hauling a load to a
• • •
Since starting her own law firm, Rojas has faced frustrations of her own. She doesn’t like looking for office furniture. She chafes at administrative duties.
But standing in her office’s half-furnished waiting room – it’s got the essentials, such as a coffee maker, a water cooler, two chairs pilfered from her law partner’s former dining room table – she’s happy she made the move.
“I like it enough to make it work,” she says.
More family time is the biggest benefit. She no longer worries about an interminable commute – her office is 10 minutes from her home – or having to spend so much time in court.
“I’m enjoying the flexibility quite a bit, I really am,” says Rojas, who had spent the previous night baking cookies – a marketing tool to introduce herself to other lawyers in her new office building with the aim of getting more client referrals. “I’m still working quite a bit, but I can get up early, work before the kids wake up, and that counts, whereas at the PD’s [public defender’s] office you still have to be there during working hours.”
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