It seems like only yesterday (in fact it was yesterday) that I wrote that more people are working freelance, as independent contractors, and that the trend is accelerating. Articles on the subject have titles like In the Future, Employees Won’t Exist, and they compare work to making a movie:

A director assembles the people with the skills necessary to create a complete movie (casting, lighting, grips, sound, etc.). They come together and focus intensely on one project and then disperse when it’s complete. It’s very different from a business world that’s typically described with a rigid org chart, but still highly effective.

Or maybe not. In the appropriately named Dismal Scientist blog, economist Adam Ozimek munches U.S. government data and comes to the opposite conclusion. He finds that the number of workers claiming they are self-employed is lower than at any point in the past 70 years and is going lower.

self employment droppingSelf-employment keeps dropping, no matter what I write. (Photo: Bureau of Labor Statistics via Moodys)

Ozimek also questions the movie-making model, where people come together to make a team for a particular job and then move on to the next project. In fact, his data show that the share of workers doing multiple jobs is at a 20-year low. He concludes:

In the future, new technology and businesses may herald a different world for workers. But for now, the "gig economy" and a "nation of freelancers" remains a phenomenon on the margins of the labor market.

loggers in forestEveryone but one in this photo is in Subcontractor Nation. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Now I'm not an economist, but I wonder if the definitions in the government surveys are keeping up with the trends. I recently was out West looking at a forestry operation where 30 years ago, a huge company employed hundreds in a vertically integrated operation, hiring and housing and feeding loggers and drivers and fallers and support staff. The company working the same land today employs exactly 19 people — and except for the guy with his hand up giving instructions, every person in the photo above is a subcontractor. Some are subs to other subs. They are not working multiple jobs, and they may be working for someone else, but it is definitely a different work environment than their dads had.

Small businesses are hiring more subcontractors too. According to Entrepreneur magazine,

Data show a rise in the fraction of sole proprietorships’ business expenses that comes from contract labor annually, beginning in 2003, when the IRS first began recording those numbers, and ending 2011, the latest year that data are available. During this time, spending on contract labor rose from 3.5 percent of sole proprietors’ business expenses in 2003 to 6.4 percent in 2011.

Perhaps we shouldn't call it Freelance Nation. Perhaps it should be Subcontractor Nation. But the working world has definitely changed, even if those government stats don't reflect it.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.