What do a freelance web developer, an independent marketing consultant, and an Airbnb operator have in common? They can all classify what they do as "gig work". With the growth of the gig or freelance economy growing at an astronomical pace, more and more people are falling into this category. However, no one seems to be able to agree on a working definition of what gig work actually is.

People who work in this area call themselves a number of things, from freelancers to 1099 workers, which contributes to some of the confusion. Though the way they get their work may actually be quite similar, two workers can have completely different names for themselves. Conversely, two people calling themselves freelancers could actually work very differently and get their work from completely opposite sources. There are also many different aspects of gig work, which allows for people to find a good fit for their skills and career but also makes it more difficult to define. Some work is more flexible, other work is rigid; some work involves growing a client base, other work is solitary; some positions require previous skills and a certain educational background, other positions can be learned on the job.

The best accepted definition of gig work is that it applies to people who use online intermediaries to generate business. Again, this could come from a number of sources. A driver using Uber to find passengers, a writer using freelancer.com, or an artist advertising on Craigslist all fall into this category. Part of the reason for the growth of the gig economy following this definition is that it used to be much more difficult for independent contractors to find clients. But the Internet and various platforms have opened the doors to anyone to generate business. With the growth of technology, many people working as independent contractors use the internet to find clients and work and to build their personal brand. As technology grows and the gig economy increase and diversifies, we'll likely see more business generation platforms and more definitions for a gig worker.

Rapidly growing platforms like Uber and Airbnb have made it accessible for many more people to join the gig economy without requiring certain work experience or education. However, other positions like independent financial consulting are best performed by people with a certain background, education, or certification. A growing portion of freelancers also have full-time jobs, which means it can be difficult for them to know how to identify their work situation and how much weight to give to their side job.

An estimated 50 million-plus people in the U.S. are involved in some sort of gig work--that's about a third of the workforce. However, accurately tracking this information is incredibly difficult because so many terms are used. In actually, the number of gig workers could be much higher. However, that could turn around this year, when the U.S. Census Bureau starts collecting gig worker data again, which could potentially provide us with an idea of how big the industry actually is.

Even if no one can provide a solid working definition for the gig economy, it definitely plays a vital part in the future of work and is one of the reason employees want more flexibility and freedom in the office or at home. The number of people identifying as freelancers is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years, especially as current freelancers continue to have strong financial success. We'll likely see more definitions over time, but hopefully the overarching theme can be solidified, as well.

Published on: Apr 14, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.