Gig economy: A third of U.S. workers say they're free agents

free agent worker

Working for the Man isn't as common as it used to be.

A full 31% of U.S. workers consider themselves "free agents," according to a new survey from recruiting and employment firm Kelly Services.

They identify as independent contractors, freelancers, small business owners, temps or even moonlighters. But they don't identify as "traditional employees" -- i.e., getting their sole source of income from just one employer.

A majority of them said they don't want to be tied down to just one boss. And most entered free agency willingly.

Only 10% said they were forced into it because of economic conditions -- half as many as in 2011, the last time Kelly conducted the survey.

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Free agents reported higher levels of satisfaction than traditional employees in terms of their work overall, their work-life balance, skills development and opportunities to advance their careers, the survey showed.

When it came to job security, it was pretty much a tie. Given how notoriously uncertain a freelancer's life can be, that may be more a comment on how insecure traditional workers are feeling today about their jobs.

Free agency cuts across all industries, according to the survey, but it appeared to be most prevalent in IT, finance/accounting, engineering and education.

It's not just the young who have signed up. The survey found that 36% of Baby Boomers identified as free agents compared to just 26% of Millennials.

Companies are often eager to bring on high-skilled, experienced older workers for projects, especially if they're related to the sciences, technology, engineering and math, said Teresa Carroll, Kelly's senior vice president of Global Talent Solutions.

Related: When an independent contractor is really an employee

The survey comes at a time when the courts, the government, economic researchers and politicians are trying to sort out just how big the gig economy really is, what perks and perils it holds for workers, and whether employers are simply misclassifying workers as independent contractors to save on money and liability.

The best known example of late is a lawsuit alleging that the ride-hailing company Uber incorrectly classified drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, and in doing so paid them less than what they deserved.

Generally speaking independent contractors and other free agents are cheaper for companies to hire. Employers don't have to offer them benefits like health insurance and 401(k)s, pay them overtime or give them paid days off. They don't have to pay into state unemployment insurance or worker's compensation funds on the contractors' behalf. And they don't have to cover the employer share of their payroll taxes or withhold income taxes.

Those are costs free agents must absorb themselves. And their to-do lists are usually topped with "hustle for new work."

In return they have the freedom to decide where, when, how and for whom they work -- which can be a huge perk, especially when their skills and expertise are in demand.

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