Skip to main content

MBO Survey Shows Growing Reliance on Supplemental Independent Work

According to MBO Partners’ annual survey released today, 41.8 million people participate in independent work at least monthly, slightly up from 40.9 million in 2017. This number translates to 26.9 percent of employed workers, compared to 26.7 percent on last year’s survey.1 The increase is primarily among those working only occasionally as independent workers, using the income to supplement other sources. In fact, the number of people relying on independent work full-time dropped slightly, to 10.2 percent of workers from 10.6 percent last year. This number is very similar to last month’s Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that 10.1 percent of workers rely on alternative arrangements for their main source of income.

The MBO survey defines independent workers as consultants, freelancers, contractors, temporary, and on-call workers. Although the categories included are similar to the alternative work arrangements counted by the CWS, the MBO survey counts participation in independent work in any capacity, rather than only as a main source of income. It tabulates the number of hours people work in these arrangements, identifying full-time workers as those working more than 15 hours per week, part-time workers as those working less than 15 hours per week, and occasional workers as those working at least once per month.

Today’s report notes that independent work is a part of a broader landscape of work arrangements that are in transition in a changing economy. Given the strength of the labor market in combination with long-term wage stagnation, the survey findings suggest that people are likely turning to independent work to deal with unexpected expenses and smooth income volatility. While traditional wages remain stagnant, the costs of housing, education, and healthcare have risen, and so many people turn to supplemental work in order to meet basic needs. Gaining an understanding of work, workers, and their needs requires looking at these different arrangements and how people piece them together.

Independent workers struggle to access benefits and training

The MBO survey sheds light on some of the most pressing challenges facing workers today. Concerns over benefits, including health insurance, are increasing, after sharp declines following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. This year, 42 percent of independent workers expressed concerns about accessing benefits, up from 33 percent in 2016, shortly after the ACA had taken full effect.

This year’s survey also asked about workers’ impressions of automation and the need for ongoing training and skill acquisition. Compared to traditional workers, full-time independent workers reported being less concerned about automation replacing their jobs, less likely to consider learning new skills to be important, and less likely to participate in training opportunities. This finding is in contrast to last year’s Freelancing in America survey, commissioned by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, which found that independent workers were more concerned about automation and more likely to seek out training opportunities than traditional workers. The contradictions between these reports reflect a need for further research into the ways in which independent workers think about and access ongoing education and training.

The survey, administered by Emergent Research and Rockbridge Associates, is an online survey of over 3,500 people. Results are weighted to match the demographics of the population, though these methods remain imperfect estimates. MBO Partners, a company that provides operating and financial tools to independent contractors, sponsors the annual survey, which has been conducted since 2011, making this its eighth year. Overall, this year’s iteration of MBO’s survey adds to the growing knowledge on work arrangements, and provides further evidence that independent work is a source of supplemental income for growing numbers of American workers. The full report, “The State of Independence in America,” contains more information on the survey and further findings, including measures of satisfaction, motivations, and demographics.

  • 1. These numbers are calculated using the estimated number of independent workers from the MBO surveys and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ civilian employment numbers for the month of the survey. The 2017 share is lower than what is presented in the 2017 MBO report because the report includes only privately employed workers rather than the entire employed workforce.

Read next