Envisioning An Internet-Fueled Future – Forbes

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Alibaba Vice President Gao Hongbing is predicting that “20% of the world’s population will become self-employed or freelance via the Internet in the next decade,” providing fuel for those who see the Internet as a disruptive technology.

Whether Gao was, in fact, making a general observation or issuing some kind of warning is unclear.

Was Gao suggesting that the Internet has made business-as-we-know-it so obsolete that upwards of a billion-and-a-half people worldwide will, in the next few years, forgo traditional employment and strike out on their own—working independently and supporting themselves from virtually any location they choose, so long as they can connect to the Internet? Or was he merely observing that the Internet creates opportunities for many people that may not have existed in the past?

Part of the answer lies in what he meant by “self-employed” and working “freelance.”

Hundreds of millions of people around the world already are self-employed or working freelance, some by choice, others by necessity—many of the latter participating in their countries’ underground economies.

In the United States, we may already have surpassed the 20% self-employment mark—again, depending on how you define the term “self-employed.”

The Pew Research Center, using U.S. Census Bureau data, has estimated that in 2014, “self-employed Americans and the workers they hired accounted for 44 million [U.S.] jobs … or 30% of the national workforce.” The self-employed, Pew researchers found, numbered “14.6 million in all,” representing 10% of the U.S. workforce. “They in turn provided jobs for 29.4 million other workers,” some of whom also were self-employed, working in effect as sub-contractors, others of whom were payroll employees.

The numbers presumably don’t include full- and part-time workers who freelance on the side, working nights and weekends on their own, in many cases for unreported cash. This is where self-employment and freelance work intersect with the underground economy.

Globally, the percentages appear to be similar—with higher percentages of people working for themselves in developing countries, and lower percentages in the developed world. A 2014 Gallup poll, for example, found that 18% of all adults worldwide—or 29% of the global workforce—reported being self-employed in 2013. In Southeast Asia, 41% of the workforce reported being self-employed. In Sub-Saharan Africa: 36%. In the EU and North America: 10% and 7%, respectively. This latter figure is somewhat inconsistent with the Pew findings, but it’s not that far off (7% vs. 10%), and it may not include the increasing numbers of baby boomers who, since 2013, are choosing to start businesses rather than retire.

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