It's not news that so-called millennials (also called Gen Y, they are the generation born from 1980-2000) are especially keen on entrepreneurship. They've been dubbed "Generation Sell" in the New York Times, told pollsters they have zero interest in climbing the corporate ladder, and labeled themselves "owners" on social media en masse. In short, for reasons of principle, passion, or necessity, millennials are the freelancing generation.

But this isn't your mother's freelancing.

That's the takeaway of recent research by MBO Partners, which provides business services to independent professionals. The report digs into the numbers, showing not just that millennials independents are a force to be reckoned with -- they already make up 30 percent of freelancers and are set to be the largest group of independents within just a few years -- but that they're also doing the solopreneur thing differently than older generations.

What sets them apart? Here are a few of the key differences MBO highlights:

They don't want to go back...

In the past, freelancing was often a hiatus when you were between more stable jobs, building new skills, or at a point in life when flexibility was at a premium. But most millennials view independence as a long-term career choice. "61% of Millennial independents plan to stay independent either as solopreneurs (40%) or in order to build a bigger business (21%)," MBO report.

Which isn't to say that a lot of them will have to give it up. It can be rough out there for a young freelancer with limited experience and a not-yet fully developed network.

... but they might have to.

While millennials seem to love the ideal of independent work, the reality on the ground can be quite a different matter. "Millennials consistently report being more challenged by independent work than other age groups do. These challenges include a lack of predictable income (reported by 57% of Millennials, compared with 48% of non-Millennials), a lack of job security (48% for Millennials, 28% for non Millennials) and concerns about benefits (46% for Millennials, 30% for non-Millennials)," says MBO.

These issues can combine to drive millennial freelancers back into the arms of traditional employers. "Many more Millennials (29%) plan to seek traditional jobs over the next two years than non-Millennials (12%)," MBO notes, explaining that a lack of experience and contacts can force the hand of young solopreneurs.

It should also be noted that while a majority of young freelancers chose the lifestyle actively, a significant minority was forced into independent work by economic conditions. Here are MBO's numbers: "One out of 4 Millennial independent workers is pursuing independent work because he or she can't find traditional employment, 31% said they left jobs they were unhappy with, and 19% did so because they lost jobs." Unsurprisingly, this cohort of freelancers-by-force are less than happy with the arrangement.

They choose independence for different reasons.

Why are those millennials who plan to stick with freelancing so committed to being independent? Their reasoning offer differs from that of older, satisfied freelancers who have a more traditional idea of "work-life balance.

"Independent work fits well with the Millennials' desire to 'work to live.' Rather than balancing work and life, younger Americans are looking to integrate the two into one interesting journey where they present the same 'self' in all aspects of life," claims MBO.

Young freelancers are also more likely to view independent work as a route to make a difference in the world. That might help explain why far more millennial solopreneurs work in creative fields than their older counterparts -- one-in-five millennials works in a creative profession compared to one-in-ten non-millennials. (Though one also wonders how much of this difference is due to the turmoil in many creative industries these days which has made full-time jobs in these fields difficult to score.)

But whether any particular young freelancer is being pulled to independent work by love or pushed by economic necessity, the fact remains that the generation's overall vision of seamless "work-life design" is firing imaginations across the age spectrum. "More and more members of older generations are adopting Millennials 'work to live; mentality for themselves, finding that setting priorities for work-life balance lowers stress, increases happiness, and doesn't (necessarily) decrease earning potential," MBO concludes.

Do you agree that millennials have a unique approach to freelancing (and that it's catching)?

Published on: Oct 23, 2015