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Indie workers: Is self-employment the new norm?

Facing a sluggish economy where jobs aren't as secure, A growing number of US workers are foregoing traditional employment to strike out on their own. Some left the workforce for more flexibility, while others were forced into self-employment by an uncertain job market.

By Margaret PriceCorrespondent / June 25, 2012

Customer service representatives for CSN Stores help customers over the phones in Boston in this 2010 file photo. Motivated by factors like the unstable job market and a desire for more flexibility, more and more workers are foregoing the traditional job security in offices like these to become self-employed or temporary workers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staf/File

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Attorney Laurie Gray quit the prosecutor's office two years ago and joined the ranks of those leaving secure work behind. Now, the Fort Wayne, Ind., mother of one has more time for her family and professional activities, including writing, teaching, serving as a bilingual interpreter, and running SocraticParenting.com, which she founded to teach parents how to model behaviors their children should adopt.

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More people are trying to create their own work," she says. "They want to follow their passion and work on their own schedule."

Even at a time when a sluggish economy is causing many Americans to look for more job security, a large number of workers are striking out on their own. By one estimate, there are 16 million "career independent workers."

Although experts disagree on the size of the cohort, their numbers do appear to be increasing. The move seems to be a confluence of three trends: workers, especially professionals, seeking more flexibility; technology that makes it easier for them to set up shop; and corporations looking to avoid hiring full-time employees at a time when business cycles are shorter than normal.

"Executives want to be able to ratchet [operations] up and down" in step with "real-time changes in the economy," says Carl Camden, president and chief executive officer of Kelly Services, a large temporary staffing company based in Troy, Mich.

That can require "adjustments to employment, as well as inventory and acquisition of raw materials," he says.

About 44 percent of workers in the United States are already "free agents" – people working on their own behalf, he estimates. By the end of this decade, he says they'll represent about 50 percent of the workforce. Mr. Camden predicts that newly minted independent workers will most likely be from areas like IT – information technology.

In turn, more people are seeking greater work-life flexibility. They also want more say in their work and a greater variety of assignments, and through technology and social media, they can access more opportunities.

"Technology has accelerated people's ability to work independently," says Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners, a provider of back-office support to independent consultants.

Most of the existing 16 million independent workers are experts or knowledge workers, and include people who work through temporary staffing agencies or those who own a business with fewer than five employees, says MBO Partners, based in Herndon, Va. It projects that the ranks of such workers will hit some 20 million next year and 70 million by 2020 – or about half the private, nongovernment workforce.

Not everyone believes such forecasts.

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