A few weeks ago at a long weekend get-together, I was catching up with some friends I hadn’t seen in several years. We got to talking about when we all had to report back to the office—back to the grind and the boss and the desk. When I said I didn’t have a date to be back behind a desk, my friends responded with instant sympathy. “You’re out of work? We didn’t know…”
And then I had to explain (again) that I’m not out of work.
I just don’t have a job.
Working for yourself has a lot of upsides. You can make your own schedule (within reason) and you have much more control over the work you do. There’s no boss, and there are no arbitrary policies or mandatory company meetings. It’s an opportunity to have a life rather than making a living.
But there are downsides, too, and surprisingly, one of the most frustrating is simple terminology.
If I say I’m a freelancer, people think I’m between jobs, trying to make ends meet. Or that I have a wealthy working spouse and I can choose to dabble rather than do “real” work.
Call yourself a “consultant” and people will assume your services cost the earth. I’ve heard more than once that a consultant is a high-priced expert who will borrow your watch to tell you the time and then charge you the price of three Rolexes for the information.
So if I don’t call myself a freelancer or a consultant, what are my other options? The government offers several terms, but they are even less useful. My chosen profession is labeled “self-employment” by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
And beyond using different labels, they also use a different method of calculating who’s in and who’s out. The IRS counts every person who earns any amount of income via a 1099 as self-employed. The BLS, on the other hand, counts only those who say that their primary source of household income is through self-employment. And then they divide that group into the incorporated and unincorporated, which dilutes the numbers even further.
Confused yet? We haven’t even gotten to the U.S. Census and its term (non-employer), which is also counted differently and includes different categories of workers. But all the counting boils down to this: Somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent of the U.S. labor force consists of individuals and tiny companies. And all those people have the same problem when trying to describe what they do to their friends—there is no short answer.
It might seem trivial, this question of what to call a group of people who have little in common except the fact that they make money in the absence of an employer. But the sheer size of this group, no matter which numbers you use to count them, comprises between 15 percent and 30 percent of the U.S. labor force. That’s between 20 and 50 million working people, a cohort that merits at least a positive descriptor.
As the number of people working independently continues to rise, so too does the awareness of this method of making a living. I expect that within another decade the confusion around how and where we all work will resolve itself. At some point it will be clear that people who work independently are not pajama-wearing slackers who are just waiting for a real job. And perhaps we’ll see some more clarification when it comes to terminology.