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Gig Economy Explosion: 53 Million American Freelancers Are Their Own Bosses

That’s 34% of the workforce.

[Photos: Flickr user Jeremy Levine]

If the findings are accurate, a majority of Americans would like to spring from their desks right now and make a run for it, if they could. Earlier this year, a Conference Board survey reported that less than half of Americans were satisfied with their jobs, perhaps due to a widespread decline in benefits and health care coverage. But a new survey on the American workforce suggests that a new kind of worker has adapted to this weird economy: The freelancer.

According to a new survey commissioned by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, freelance workers make up 53 million people, or 34% of the American workforce. In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) put the number of freelancers at 42 million, though it’d be difficult to make a direct comparison between the two figures because of differences in methodology. But there is some evidence to attest to the idea that the number of freelancers is increasing: Freelancers Union reports that its membership has grown 400% since 2007, and Elance-oDesk says that the freelancer earnings it tracks have increased by 50%.

The survey paints a generally sunny picture of what it’s like to be a freelancer, with 77% reporting that they make as much, if not more, than they did with a steady job. More than 40% said they even expected to make more in this coming year. The study also suggests that far more Americans are doing some kind of freelance work—even to supplement their primary jobs—than previously thought. The findings certainly run contrary to the popular notion that freelancers are perpetually starving, overworked types who don’t get paid on time.

"This is an economic shift on par with the Industrial Revolution," writes Sara Horowitz, executive director of Freelancers Union. "We’re seeing a new economy rise up all around us. Many freelancers see this way of working as the best way to take back control of their lives."

That’s not to diminish the very real challenges of working without a safety net. Income stability is a major challenge—and so is access to benefits. Freelancers Union is working on some of that, with a new platform that helps freelance workers find those resources.

Yet, it’s also important to recognize that the Freelancers Union/Elance-oDesk survey leaves out a significant number of workers who, without a primary job, can’t call themselves "freelancers" with the "free" association of the term. Temp labor makes up one of the fastest growing areas of the economy, often placing unskilled workers in dangerous and exploitative circumstances. These aren’t people with advanced degrees who choose to become their own bosses. Yet some 2.87 million people work in corporate warehouses, farms, and offices without much autonomy or protection whatsoever.

To read the full report, and follow a flowchart to see if you too qualify as a freelancer, click here.