The world of work is changing … fast.

“Contingent work force.” “Agile talent.” “Freelancing.” “On-demand talent.” “Contract workers.” And of course, “the gig economy.”

Those are a few of the ways experts label the shift. My personal favorite comes from Accenture, where they talk about “the liquid workforce.”

Whatever you call it, I’m part of it, and the odds are decent you are too, or at some point you will be. (What? You thought you were going to go to the same office every day for 40-odd years and retire with a gold watch?)

Already close to a third of the American workforce is freelancing by choice. Although my guess is, they’re using a loose definition of choice. Plenty of people hang out a shingle because their full-time position evaporated and another one never showed up despite a diligent search.

And that may contribute to another shift. Traditionally, temporary employees did administrative or operational work, or they were hired for a holiday season. That’s all changed. Today, companies are using on-demand talent for strategic work too, year-round.

So, some 49-MILLION individuals are calling their own tune when it comes to work. And that number’s only growing. The experts predict more than half of workers in the U.S. will be independent by 2027.

And no, we’re not all slackers who couldn’t cut it in a corporate job. Millennials, especially, are choosing independent work in larger numbers every year.

Gig Economy - FreelancerCompanies are preparing in all kinds of ways. They have to figure out what work will be needed, look for someone who can do the work, and in some cases outbid other employers for that talent.

It’s a big change from the days when somebody in HR hired and fired people and made sure they got paid every two weeks in the interim.

Now companies are “managing beyond the enterprise.” B-school lingo for dealing with a workforce ecosystem of traditional full-time employees sitting right down the hall, employees who work at home and show up at the office for an occasional meeting, and contract workers brought in for a specific project who may not know or care much about the organization’s long-term goals.

The varied arrangements can present problems for employers.

There are challenges for the agile/contingent/freelancer types too.

Deloitte’s experts say if you choose independent work, the big benefit is a sense of complete control over the kind of work you do, along with how much you work, where and with whom. You’re not just a cog—you’re the whole wheel. And that can be very satisfying.

The downside is, of course, you’re the whole wheel. So, when things don’t go well, it’s not about the organization, it’s about you. That can be a crushing blow.

Since work is a big way we create a sense of identity and meaning, those of us who don’t “go to work” at some company every day would be wise to emulate some of what goes on for those who do.

Yale’s Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski says we organize our work lives around place, routines, people, and purpose. Companies take care of these things. They set us up in an office or cubicle; tell us when to come to work and when to leave, provide coworkers to keep us company at the water cooler, and they at least try to convey a sense of meaning about what the organization does.

Solo professionals have to take care of ourselves.

 So we need a Place to work—a home office or a co-working space, the local library or a coffeeshop. It’s somewhere we associate with getting down to business and getting things done.

Routine is connected to the place: arriving, focusing, getting into the mindset of the workday.

Professor Wrzesniewski says the most important People for agile workers are the ones who can calm us or excite us. Who help us manage highs and lows that come with working solo. We need the folks who remind us why we started this independent work in the first place.

And she says Purpose is fundamental, especially for independent workers who take on a certain amount of risk by working on their own.

There are also some practical implications for freelancers.

Corporate employees have whole human resources departments to support them. Those of us who work on our own have to take responsibility for our own careers.

  • We’re on our own for health insurance.
  • There’s no pension or 401K plan—if we don’t want to wind up broke in our old age, we have to set up a savings plan and stick to it.
  • Paid time off? Not likely for a freelancer. Taking a vacation means planning ahead and socking away the money we won’t be earning while we’re gone.
  • Professional development is important, absolutely necessary in some fields. But nobody’s bringing in trainers and coaches and consultants for us.
  • In the gig economy, if we want to learn a new skill or develop our talent, we have to find the person who can help us do it. And we have to invest the time and money to make it happen.
  • And the social aspect of work? We’re on our own there too. It’s smart to join a professional association, or otherwise team up with people who can cheer us on, prop us up, or offer a referral now and again.

In my Chicago neighborhood, a group has started lunching once a month. We’re all remote employees or freelancers who work at home—it’s good to get together for mutual support and plain old fun.

And there’s my monthly Roundtable with other “agile talent” types. We exchange information and ideas and have the kind of conversations corporate employees might have in the coffee room at the office.

I’m naturally social; I’ve needed to structure my work-at-home life so I’m not climbing the walls for lack of connection.

And what about you?

 Maybe you’re happily ensconced in a corporate office, working your way up the ladder and getting your needs met. Maybe you’ve struck out on your own … or you’re thinking about it.

What makes working alone work for you? Or what scares you into sticking with the company, and hoping they’ll stick by you?

Post a comment about your foothold in the changing world of work.