Increasing Numbers of Self-Employed People

A blog post on Mavenlink has a graphic that illustrates how big the self-employed labour force in the U.S., and digs into how it is structured and how it was formed. The numbers and background are impressive. The expectation is that there will be nearly 44 million self-employed people in the United States this year. To put that number in perspective, there are about 130-140 million people with jobs in the U.S. today. That puts the self-employed category at about 1/3rd of the total employed population. And that number keeps going up.

Okay, but what does this mean? We’ve all known for a while that the “get a job out of school, work until 65, get a gold watch and a pension” career is pretty much gone. About the only hold-out are governments. I’ve seen a variety of numbers, but the expectation is that people will change jobs 5-7 times in their career. I recall seeing one that claims that people in their twenties may change jobs 4-6 times or even more before they turn 30. I know that I’ve rarely worked at any particular job for longer than 3-5 years before I move on to something else. My longest stint as an employee? 8 years. I’ve been self-employed for the last decade, and of my 26-year career, nearly half of it has been spent self-employed. I highly doubt that I will find myself as a full-time employee of a company, unless I’m one of the founders or shareholders.

Jobs Become Projects

One model I’ve heard advanced is that work will change from “jobs”, where you show up for some number of hours every day for a long period of time, to “projects”, where the focus is to achieve a tangible goal. Granted, there are some tasks that don’t lend themselves to projects. Customer support and interaction (such as sales), IT support, automotive maintenance and repair, and product assembly are all on-going activities. That doesn’t mean that the people doing those jobs are necessarily full-time employees. They could still be done by using independent contractors, with specialists coming in from time to time when needed. But there are plenty of other tasks that are more project-oriented: building or upgrading a software system, developing a marketing campaign, financial audits and quarterly/annual reports, building an office tower, designing a new consumer product.

The new model of project-oriented work can mean that the venture looks more like a Hollywood movie production: a lot of specialists are all gathered, work together to complete the project, and then move on to other opportunities when the project is done. Some groups of people may stick together to be a ready-built team to take on certain types of projects. But there could be more and more use of ad hoc teams to accomplish a particular goal, and once it’s done, they all move on. I’ve been involved with projects in my own ventures where we did this, to some extent. We had a core group of people who worked on the product full-time, but we would bring in contractors to fill in short-term gaps and provide some extra productivity. Once those pieces were completed, they moved on, leaving the core team to continue the on-going job of support, maintenance and evolution of the product.

“Too Many” Now Good, “Too Few” Can Hurt

There was a time where a resume littered with “too many” jobs was considered a liability. The general guideline I was always given was you needed to keep a job for at least 2 years. Less, and it looked like you were unreliable or couldn’t be depended on over the long-haul. I entered the workforce at a time where you still strove for a job that could last a span of decades. Today, a resume that doesn’t have “enough” jobs could be considered a liability. It can look like you’re stuck in a rut, and may not have the diverse skills needed for other projects or other jobs. It is quite the turn-around from the past.

Still Is More Of The Same, But Not The Same

The challenge is that there are still places out there that value stability over diversity. They want someone to at least think they are getting a job that will last the better part of their career. There is still a generation of managers working for companies that want a Company Man (or Company Woman), someone who will focus all of their energy on their job and their employer for many, many years. These employers want devotion and loyalty. They want stability in their workforce. They do not want turnover, and many pride themselves on their low numbers regarding turnover of staff.

The problem is that people know that the compact being offered is generally one-way: no matter how devoted or loyal someone is to a company, that devotion is returned in kind. When a company is struggling to meet “the numbers”, the first place that many companies will cut are the employees. For most companies, payroll is the biggest outlay of cash. It is the easiest thing to cut back on and have it show immediately on the income statement. The people may be loyal to their employer, but their employer isn’t always loyal to them. The result: more and more people are looking out for themselves, by working for themselves.

In some ways, we are starting to drift back to structure more like employment was before the industrial revolution. Granted, “self-employment” prior to the mid-1800’s generally meant you were a farmer. I dont’ expect most of us are going to go back and “work the land”, mainly because it isn’t feasible anymore. But what I do see are more and more companies that use other self-employed organizations to do what they do. There will still be “employees”, but they will work for smaller companies, brought together in many cases on more project-like work and less on “do this for the next 20 years” work. I don’t see long-term jobs disappearing entirely, but I can see higher turn-over rates and more use of contractors or smaller companies to fulfill them.

What Does It Mean For Me?

What does this mean to the average person? Be prepared for change. Accept that your only choice for long-term employment may mean working for yourself. Now your job isn’t to find “jobs”, your job is to find “customers”. There are, and will continue to be, plenty of other companies that can help you with that. Some skill at sales and marketing won’t hurt, but it doesn’t have to become a core strength. You want to build a diverse set of skills, not just at your core competency, but outside of that. Self-employment comes with stresses, there is no question. But jobs that offer lifetime employment are diminishing all the time. Your best lifetime employer may be staring back at you in the mirror.