The Recession Is Mainstreaming the Part-Time Economy

Jobs are so 20th century. The future is part-time.

Whatever you want to call it -- contracting, contingent labor, part-time work, gigs, freelance -- independent work is on the rise. While the government does a poor job at consistently counting the self- and marginally-employed workforce, the available evidence all points to booming trend. According to various polls, almost a third of the labor force participates in freelancing, independent or part-time work.

Today the Times reports that the recession is adding to the appeal of working contract-to-contract without being tied down to a cubicle. Rather than destroying the old work model, the downturn is accelerating the transformation already underway, as white-collar workers grasp for hours, whether or not they come with benefits:

In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics ... As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers' confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.

If this sounds like a positive development to you, then congratulations, because you are almost certainly very young! Twentysomethings might embrace a job market that lets them mix and match jobs to make a career. Older Americans with families and dependents would prefer positions with a little more support. The freelance market has grown in the last decade into something like a skyscraper built on string and haystacks: a lot of workers with zero foundation.

Independent workers rarely qualify for unemployment insurance, health insurance, or wage theft laws. So when freelancers go out on their own, they are, rather literally, out on their own. In economy where the marginally attached are truly marginal, perhaps that's a government failure one can ignore. But as the gigs go mainstream, policymakers will have to think about counting and providing for this shadow labor market. Even intrepid independent workers need a net when they fall.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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