The U.S. Independent Workforce Increased by 34% Since 2020

Younger workers and women made up a large share of this increase


Team Guide

12/12/20212 min read

Although many things about work have changed over the past year and a half, one of the defining moments of this time may very well be the dramatic shift to freelance and independent work during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its 11th annual State of Independence in America survey, workforce solutions provider MBO Partners revealed that many working Americans started a freelance career during the health crisis.

Its latest set of findings indicate that the number of full-time, part-time and occasional independent workers has increased 34% since last year — from 38.2 million in 2020 to 51.1 million this year.

Factors influencing the recent growth of the U.S. freelance workforce

The past year has been a wakeup call for Americans, many of whom felt like they weren't living their best life. In response, workers have taken the reins on their career by finding work they deem more suitable and meaningful — including independent work.

In fact, a recent Upwork survey found that 52% of those who "definitely" plan on quitting their job are considering a freelance career instead. And according to MBO Partners, those that have already made the leap are happy with their decision: 77% say they're "highly satisfied," the highest level of satisfaction recorded in the survey's 11-year run.

Of course, many have more practical reasons for going independent. For instance, the report found that:

  • 73% of those who started part-time independent work in the last year did so in part to supplement their income

  • 68% of full-time independent workers say that independent work is more secure than a full-time job

  • 50% of independent workers cite the ability to "feel more secure steering my own destiny" as a top reason for going into freelance work

And with new products, services and platforms in place to support freelancers as they start and grow their careers, independent work is now easier and less risky than ever before. MBO Partners showed that 40% of independent workers who started in the past year use online talent and product marketplaces to find new customers — versus 27% who did so in 2020.

With these figures in mind, it's little surprise that 17% of non-independents say they "definitely" or "probably" will become independent in the future.

New independent workers skew younger and female

Although the U.S. independent workforce is vast and diverse, MBO Partners noted that those who started freelancing in the past year were younger and more likely to be female.

Over two-thirds (68%) of new independent workers are Gen Z (ages 18-25) and millennials (ages 26-40), a significant increase from the 50% of those who have been freelancing for over a year. A different survey from The Standard found that younger workers were more likely to experience mental health issues due to pandemic-era financial instability, which may explain why so many of them have turned to freelance work.

Additionally, 55% of this new generation of independent workers identify as female — up from 46% in 2019. Many women saw their career progression slow down or stop completely during the COVID-19 crisis, while others took on the lion's share of housework, child care and child education during this time.

It follows, then, that these demographic groups in particular have decided to take on independent work as a supplement or alternative to traditional full-time work during the pandemic.

A young girl drinking tea from a porcelin white mug
A young girl drinking tea from a porcelin white mug