Freelance Nation

The other day, on a Manhattan sidewalk, I ran into a former colleague and asked her what she was doing these days. She shrugged: “I’m in limbo.”

When I looked her up later to connect online, her LinkedIn profile listed her as CEO of her own consulting firm. That didn’t sound like limbo to me, until I saw the fine print: “self-employed, myself only.” Scrolling through the rest of my contacts, I noticed that quite a few people in my professional orbit had titles like “president” or “founder” or “principal.” Some of these people, I know, are doing quite well; others are barely making it.
These days, being your own boss can mean any number of things: running a thriving business with employees and profits, landing steady gigs as a consultant, working the same job you used to have but with no benefits, or prettified unemployment and a life in limbo.
Even government statisticians are hazy about Americans without traditional jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that about 15 million people are currently self-employed. But this category is broad: It includes a wide mix of “unincorporated” workers—like a freelance writer always hustling the next gig or a software engineer who’s been working for Microsoft for years on contract. It also includes people who’ve incorporated their one-person businesses—like, say, a candy-store owner or an accountant. Scott Shane, a business professor at Case Western Reserve University, estimates that 40 percent of Americans will be self-employed at some point in their life.