I never intended to disrupt my career over and again, eventually becoming a free agent. And yet it turns out that the odds were pretty good that I would disrupt myself out of corporate life — and that you might, too.
My decision to go independent was set in motion over a decade ago. When my husband was on the hunt for an academic job after completing his PhD, his choices were Boston and San Antonio, both of which had the potential to cut my Wall Street career short. Because of my Institutional Investor ranking, and advances in technology that made virtual co-location possible, I was able to persuade Merrill Lynch to let me work out of my home in Boston. When I left Merrill in 2005, most people didn’t know I had been working remotely for four years; my standing as an analyst had actually improved during that time.
The recent global downturn has accelerated the growing trend toward some type of independent work. Of course, this state of ‘independence’ isn’t always of our own accord. Layoffs are rife. Productivity gains are not necessarily leading to job creation. Even so, approximately 43 million people, or roughly 35%-40% of the private workforce in the U.S., are currently doing some type of contingent work; this number is expected to grow to 65-70 million within the decade, well ahead of the 1% rate at which the labor force is growing.
Drilling down further, according to MBO Partners’ State of Independence in America report, there is a rapidly growing subset of “independents” in the U.S., which MBO defines as an individual working 15+ hours per week whether as a freelancer, contractor, or owner of a micro-business. Stripping out the c. 25 million people who are working part-time and are potentially under-employed, MBO calculates there are currently about 17 million independents. This number is expected to increase to 23 million by 2017, based on a 6.3% per year growth rate, 6x the rate of growth of the workforce. And that could easily swell to over 30+ million in the next decade as large and small corporations, as well as the government, continue to migrate to contingent labor, and account for 50% of the workforce, up from 35-40% currently.
Where it gets interesting, though, is that independence isn’t necessarily being foisted on people. Of those who went independent in 2012, 57% chose to. Even more telling, whether these independents pursued this path of their own accord or not, only 13% intend to go back to traditional employment. Certainly that has been the case for me. After leaving Merrill Lynch, I co-founded Rose Park Advisors with Clay Christensen, veering ever closer to independence. A start-up environment may be grueling, but you are more your own woman — or man.
This trend cuts across all demographics. Millennials (Gen Y), ages 21-32, for example, 40% say they’re likely to choose independence of their own accord. 58% of Boomers (ages 50-66), are choosing independence. And Gen X (33-49) is the most likely to choose independence — 68% of those who have gone indie are there by choice rather than the result of job scarcity or loss. You can see this growing appetite for autonomy reflected in the burgeoning number of books and blogs looking at the meaning of work and life, from Umair Haque to Cali Yost to Gretchen Rubin to James Altucher.
The allure of “the company man” has all but faded, a quaint relic. Gone are the days when many of my friends’ parents worked at IBM’s famed Almaden IBM Labs. The job security, pension, the health benefits that a company lifer of my parents’ generation could expect simply do not exist. Meanwhile, the stigma of working on one’s own has all but vanished. Is it really any surprise that when I left Rose Park in 2012, I didn’t run back into the arms of a large corporation, instead moving even further toward a totally independent and flexible role?
Don’t mistake me. As I have moved into the role of a fully-fledged independent — writing, speaking, and advising — I am frequently terrified. A more abstract identity, rollercoaster cash flow, punctuated by entrepreneurial missteps: the P/E (puke to excitement) ratio, as Isis CEO Heather Coughlin, and fellow disruptor describes it, can become uncomfortably high, even for an adrenaline junkie like me. But alas, disruptor valuations are sometimes tough to stomach. The growth opportunity isn’t easily quantified, making valuation appear demanding for a time.
Note too, that with personal disruption, success is self-reported satisfaction, however you may define it. According to MBO, 65% of respondents reporting being highly satisfied versus 47% for those in traditional employment. I’m finding that to be the case for me. Notwithstanding the fear I occasionally feel, most days I have to pinch myself I am so happy: I get to work where I want, on what I want and with whom. I’m still working just as hard to get the brass ring, but truly I am having fun doing it. Getting paid depends almost wholly on my merits, not politics. And now more than ever, I know my family.
The disruptions that are changing the landscape of American working life have been a minefield for so many. But they are also making a new level of work-life flexibility possible that didn’t exist previously. Perhaps you’ll choose the course of independent employment. Maybe your hand will be forced. Either way, letting work freedom ring is changing the American dream, hinting at the expanse of a frontier on the other side of the industrial revolution. One where disruption isn’t just about financial returns, but the glee of harnessing a new learning curve. Where people not only put food on the table, but also have a life.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review