Insecurity? Flexibility? Uncertainty? Freedom? These are some buzzwords you hear when contract workers describe their jobs. These impermanent positions have now become a mainstay of America’s working life. NPR has run an investigative series on the gig economy and recently interviewed dozens of contract workers around the U.S.; their jobs and pay vary greatly, but many cite common patterns within their experiences.
A whopping 1 in 5 people in the U.S. workforce now identifies as a contract worker, according to a new NPR/Marist poll . They are overwhelmingly male, and the majority are under 45. Nearly half say their income changes month to month, or seasonally.
Many of these “gig” workers express frustration and feeling “stuck” as reasons for leaving their traditional, permanent positions. Many love the flexibility that such jobs offered. Some make $250,000 a year; others, merely $11 an hour. A high percentage without benefits are just keeping their fingers crossed that they don’t get sick, and often can’t sleep at night from stress over retirement savings. Here are a handful of the workers talking about freelance work, in their own voices:
Mike Tannenbaum, 31, Philadelphia, Business Strategy Consultant
“I’m doing this for the lifestyle,” says Tannenbaum, who consults for companies on ways to enhance teamwork. He says he likes being able to “take time off when I want to, and not justify it to someone … and have ownership over my life.” But contracting has been “feast or famine,” he says. He receives benefits through his wife’s employer but says “there’s emotional fluctuation that comes with the uncertainty” the work brings. The couple’s American dream isn’t about ownership, he says, but about experiencing as much as they can.
Rebecca Miller, 42, Martinez, Calif., Emergency Physician
Not many physicians have worked with patients at dozens of hospitals throughout the country. Miller has. “You pick where you want to go, and you pick where you want to work,” she says. Miller does shift work at hospitals that are short on emergency physicians; she lands her gigs through a staffing agency. She has spent quick weekends in North Dakota and New York City, and weeks on a merchant marine ship teaching CPR. The flexibility has allowed her to build up savings and travel frequently. Later this year, she plans to pick up a part-time position for its benefits.
Cody Climer, 37, Beaverton, Ore., Online Customer Service Assistant
“I’d just like a nice, boring job where I can go in everyday and do work that I’m happy and proud about, and not have to be scared about being laid off.”
Climer messages about four customers at a time as he helps them figure out how to use tax software. He landed a six-month contract through a temping agency after several months of unemployment. “I put my resume absolutely everywhere. … Eventually this worked out.” Climer, who has an Associates Degree in Graphic Design, and graduated to grim job prospects during the 2008 financial crisis. He is uncertain about how hard he can lean on the temp agency to find his next gig. He receives health care through his husband’s employer and says their American dream is “simple”: “We don’t own a home, and we don’t want to. We’re totally fine with an apartment. We live like monks. We don’t want anything crazy — just a comfortable home, cars that are running and a Netflix account.”
Lindsay Hodgson, 33, Madison, Wis., Electronic Medical Records Software
Hodgson quit a job at a software company and now consults on software she helped develop. She helps hospitals across the U.S. install and manage an electronic medical records system. She travels to hospitals Sunday through Thursday and spends the weekends at home. “I’m not looking to any changes to my situation,” she says. “I’m very happy.”
Eric Isaksen, 25, Leonardo, N.J., Merchant Marine Deck Officer
“China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Belgium, England, Spain, Yemen … and where else? Oman?” says Isaksen, listing the places he has traveled to through his work. Working under contract for three to four months straight, he lives on a boat where he stands on navigational watch. That’s followed by three to four months of paid vacation time onshore. “The goal is to work six months out of the year and make enough money” before finding a new contract as his vacation time ends, he says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. You miss out on family and friends and girlfriends, holidays and birthdays.” Isaksen has his eye on starting a family and owning a home, and he doesn’t see himself doing contract work with this kind of schedule for more than a couple of years.
Carol Katarsky, 44, Philadelphia, Freelance Writer/Editor
Katarsky’s gigs have ranged from one-off magazine articles to longer-term projects relaunching websites. She says being the master of her schedule has allowed her to enjoy her work more. “Since I was a little kid, I thought playing with words was fun. … Now it doesn’t really feel like work to me,” she says. “I’ve been very happy.” Her income fluctuates, but she says she makes roughly the same amount as in her old corporate job — while working half the hours. She juggles multiple projects at once, focusing on those that allow her to spend time with her son. A downside of being self-employed is paying the full price for health insurance, she says, but it’s bearable. “I like having the flexibility… I’m not beholden to someone’s schedule, which has become more important to me as I’ve gotten older.”
Russell Deuberry, 34, Indianapolis, IT
“My folks worked for the same place for 35 years and retired from there and that was never an option for me,” Deuberry says. “You can’t trust companies to look out for your best interests anymore.” After his corporate job was outsourced, he got into contract work. That has allowed him to make enough money beyond making ends meet, but he worries about not being able to find work if the economy takes a downward turn. “I’ve got the house, got the car, got a kid,” he says.”I’m pretty content making the money I’m making now. It’s more than I need, honestly.”
Bill Erdle, 65, Oregon City, Ore., HR Consultant
Erdle is a seasoned contract worker: Since leaving the corporate world more than 20 years ago, he’s had over 100 contracts, juggling five or six at a time. He fills a temporary HR need for companies: analyzing pay and developing salary structures. Erdle loves the flexibility of working from home and considers himself quite successful — he is a homeowner, is happily married and receives benefits through his wife’s employer. But he is always preparing for potential famines: “You need probably a year’s worth of salary saved up for the inevitable times of no income.