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Counting America’s Freelance, Ahem, 'Self-Employed' Workers

The rise of the freelance economy gets plenty of attention. Getting a handle on how many U.S. workers fit into this bucket is harder than you’d think.

An old Intuit (INTU) survey projected that more than 40 percent (PDF) of the U.S. workforce would be contingent workers by 2020. More recently, a lobbying group called It’s My Business estimated there are 10.3 million independent contractors working in the U.S. today. Freelancers Union, meanwhile, says 42 million workers, or one-third of the U.S. workforce, are already freelancers—and makes a habit of admonishing the Bureau of Labor Statistics for failing to take note.

MBO Partners—a consultancy catering to independent workers and the organizations that hire them—updated its efforts to keep track of the freelance market this week, publishing an annual report on independent workers in the U.S. (PDF). It relies on two surveys of about 2,000 people each.

The study estimated there are 17.7 million independent workers, defined as “people who work at least 15 hours a week in nontraditional, nonpermanent” jobs. That was good for about 8 percent of Americans aged 21 or older, with a combined income of $1.2 trillion. One in four independent workers hired other independents, spending $96 billion to pay contractors, according to the study.

The report also offered this interesting tidbit: Thirty-six percent of independent workers polled consider themselves “self-employed,” compared with 13 percent who said they were “business owners” and 4 percent who identify as “freelancers.”

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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