Here Comes Everybody
The U.S. economy is in the first stages of the biggest change in a century in how daily business gets done, as men and women forgo traditional jobs to work independently—as freelancers, indie professionals, creatives, free agents. As what we can call, in aggregate, soloists.
The gap between a world of “jobs” and a world of “work”—work that individuals increasingly have to create for themselves as soloists in order to build sustainable professional and financial lives—is what triggered the Solo City inquiry by The Solo Project and the Knight Foundation.
This article is an introduction to the solo phenomenon and emerging indie worker population, focusing separately on the evidence about it, the economic history that creates its context, and the economic and cultural forces that are driving its expansion.
As macro-economic data collectors attest, the numbers that should help us understand the solo phenomenon are a mess. (Need more proof? Note that those last two tallies—7.5 million and 60.6 million—come from the same source: the government General Accounting Office, which, to its credit, transparently does some throwing up of its hands.)
But if we can get clear about specifically where each number comes from and why, and more importantly about what it is that urban and business leaders really need to know, we can make enough sense of the statistics to make them useful.
To begin with, the wide variances in independent-worker population totals are explicable; the different numbers in fact measure different things, are collected in different ways, and have different purposes. Taken together as a system, they’re broken.
For a fuller explanation of that breakdown, see “Why Independent-Worker Data Is So Damn Bad.” Here we’ll skip to the conclusion, which is that the most credible source of the kind of information policymakers and business leaders need to know right now is a 2015 Edelman Berland report commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Upwork. It’s survey-based, and tries to understand the solo population as dynamic instead of static, recognizing (as most government data approaches don’t) that many Americans are neither “only” job holders or “only” independents; they’re often both. They’re also often transitioning from one circumstance to another—jobholder, soloist, a hybrid of jobholder and soloist—and in many cases even yo-yo’ing back and forth among them.
According to that report, there are already 53.7 million people whose lives involve some form of soloing, and thus whose changing needs and wants increasingly need to be addressed. That’s more than a third of U.S. work force. Of the 53.7 million, 21.8 million are soloists full-time.
Approximate corroboration for those numbers can be found in another 2015 survey, by Emergent Research for MBO Partners, which puts the full-time indie work force at 17.8 million using somewhat different definitions.
Soloists in U.S. Workforce, by Category
How fast is the population growing? A recent RAND-Princeton University study, doing its best to parse government data, reported that the share of workers in “alternative work arrangements in their main job” increased by over 50 percent from 2005 to 2015, during which time the total of “traditional” job holders declined. The report stated: “A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.” [Italics, theirs.]
But if the statistical evidence about the emergence of the indie population can be confusing, other kinds of evidence are not.
The “wisdom” of the markets, for instance, is already legitimizing the trend—as evidenced by the global build-out of coworking spaces, the creation of “open” talent marketplaces for every imaginable type of non-traditional professional, the launch of proprietary talent exchanges by firms as different as PwC and Facebook, and the increasingly sophisticated back-office infrastructure offerings designed to help independents collect receivables, build technology platforms, manage personal finance, and procure benefits.
Perhaps, though, the most credible evidence of the new world of work is more anecdotal even than that. Most of us already see soloists all around us. They do our taxes, design our apps, create our new LLCs, write the scripts for our favorite TV shows. And in most of our households, we’re already experiencing some level of contact with this indie world, whether it’s a spouse freelancing to supplement income or test the idea of going solo full-time, or a parent creating a professional backup plan, or a kid telecommuting to a job and discovering how appealing it is to conduct work on her own terms.
Most of us already know the solo world better than we think.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Years from now, economic historians will have captioned our present moment. “The Revolution of Independents?” Undoubtedly not—though the label would reasonably bookend “The Industrial Revolution,” which pins down the other end of the arc that spans from a disaggregated economy to an aggregated one and now back toward disaggregation again.
We were all farmers once, and shopkeepers, and tradesmen—each making our individual way. Then the Industrial Revolution gathered steam in the 19th Century, its inventions enabling work to happen at a new kind of scale, and it drove labor into bigger and bigger organizations. Farmers moved to factories, and the 20th Century became the invention ground for the corporation as we know it today.
We forget sometimes that the very large modern corporation is as new a construct as it is—that it hasn’t been here forever—because until recently this concept of aggregated corporate bigness was the most powerful organizer of American life.
Then, some 40 years ago, all hell broke loose again, once again on account of an invention, and once again challenging our ideas about scale. This time the invention was the semiconductor, and it didn’t take as long as the steam engine did to produce its effects. Beginning in the ‘80s with the rise of the entrepreneurial economy, in which the small and the agile began to outperform the large and inflexible, and continuing into today’s landscape of the internet, the cloud, and everything mobile and linked, we’ve been able to do our work on a an increasingly small scale—eventually on the smallest scale: a unit of one. As individuals. As soloists.
Maybe the explanation of this arc isn’t more complicated than the Aristotelian idea that if a thing can be done, it will be done—and done in the simplest feasible way. Why did we get here? We got here because, thanks to what each new stage of innovation made possible, we could.
But that “arc” is the narrative from 35,000 feet. Let’s separate out the most critical forces that are driving the solo phenomenon right now:
- The enabling power of new tools and technology Ever-evolving computer, web, and communications technologies have enabled individuals to work on almost anything, with almost anyone, from almost anywhere—making distributed collaboration a recently realistic prospect. For large corporations—often the “clients” whom indies serve—technology has increased the capability to oversee, measure, and lower the transaction costs of using distributed labor, increasing their willingness to demand it.
With momentum from both the supply and demand sides, new work-life options are proliferating.
- Corporate layoffs and diminished “traditional” opportunity During the past decade, many Americans have been forced into the ranks of independent workers as one industry after another has been disrupted by new technology and new business models. This has resulted in what economists refer to as a “dramatic loss of scale” among U.S. corporations, a trend that’s accelerating. That contraction has eliminated some jobs, made many still-available jobs dramatically less attractive, and generally undermined employer-employee trust.
- The proliferation of project work Project work isn’t new; consultants, craftsmen, and Hollywood cinematographers have been doing it forever. But its spread throughout nearly every facet of the talent marketplace has exploded (not least because technology trends have made it possible, and corporate scale-destruction has made it necessary). Work both inside and outside organizations is increasingly being parceled into defined, temporally finite chunks. Corporations benefit from increased speed, flexibility, cost control, and short-term access to talent that it might otherwise be unable to hire. Indie professionals benefit from unprecedented new demand for specialized talent.
- Rising indie status and a hunger for “good work” As significant as the economic forces driving the solo movement is a cultural one: the rising status of the indie professional. Soloists are disproportionately thought leaders, creatives, and tastemakers—outsized influencers not just of the strategies of our corporate leaders and policymakers but of everything we watch, eat, listen to, and consume. Those who choose to work on our own, once suspect, are now respected and admired as never before.
In much of the population, that enhanced social and cultural stature has created a new sense of personal possibility, making some old hungers stronger and harder to ignore—hungers for good work, for more psychically and emotionally rich lives, for greater control over how we get our work done when the work of even the best managed companies is impersonal.
Those hungers are helping turn the solo life into the work life that ambitious, independent people aspire to.
Still, however we parse each individual driver of the solo phenomenon, it may be more important to observe that there’s something cumulative going on.
Who’s Going Solo?
Dissatisfaction with work inside organizations is at an all-time high, for many reasons, including ones that even the best-managed companies can do little about. There’s the relentless market pressure to cut costs and the incredibly poor working conditions that often result. (In our reporting over the past five years, we consistently encountered corporate managers and staffers who claim that one person now handles the work formerly done by three.)
Less obvious but perhaps just as toxic are the reports that, as more and more work is done by independents, or hybrid teams of full-timers and independents, executives are becoming project managers, taking them further and further from the actual work that motivated them in the first place. The indies seem to be having all the fun, they seem to be saying.
Still, maybe there’s always been dissatisfaction with work. William Whyte and John Cheever thought so. But in the past, your path to economic survival was to take a job, whether it meant dissatisfaction or not. For most of the past century, you didn’t have a whole lot of choices. Maybe what’s changed is that now, increasingly, you do.
In fact, we’re all more and more surrounded by people exercising that choice, opting for independence over organizations, and illustrating for us in real time that it’s possible to trade nominal sacrifices (money, sometimes) for extraordinary payoffs in terms of the life you want to lead.
Already this seems to be creating an increasing returns effect. The more examples we see, the more our perceptions change about what our relationship with work can be, about what we’re entitled to ask of it. Soloing provides us with the opportunity to reimagine work at its best—what we work on, who we work with, where we work, and how.
That breeds new options, which propel more people to independence, which in turn multiplies the examples all around us and accelerates the cycle producing the change.