As we look to a new decade, it’s time to reflect on the evolution of the gig economy and what these changes mean for freelancers. In part one, we take a look back at the state of the gig economy in 2010.

There is no denying the rise of the gig economy in recent years. In fact, the number of freelance and contract professionals in the United States has never been as high, with an estimated 57.3 million working for themselves. As companies start to realize the cost-effective strategies for 1099 employees, and see the value of varied voices and talents, this segment of the economy is only going to grow.

Whether you have decided to take the jump and you’re hoping to streamline and improve your business over the next year, or you’re on the verge of going solo, it’s important to look back before we look forward. While the concept of being our own boss is attractive and seemingly fulfilling, it also requires discipline, skill, and everyone’s favorite buzzword: hustle.

Heading into not only a new year but a new decade, it’s hard to believe how far freelancers have come since 2010. In fact, some of the gig workforce was either still in college or fresh off the boat 10 years ago. Now, they’re leading the charge.

Here, a look into how the gig lifestyle has transformed, and later, we’ll tell you where it’s going.

2010 was about survival in the gig economy — not luxury of choice.

2010 was about survival in the gig economy — not luxury of choice.

Michael Dermer, the founder and CEO of The Lonely Entrepreneur, says while many people tend to think the ‘gig economy’ has emerged recently because there is a high-level of employment in the United States, it’s actually been vibrant for a while.

Following the financial crisis in 2009, Dermer shares unemployment skyrocketed and the numbers of full-time jobs at large corporations were few and far between. “So many companies were in the midst of financial crises and we’re cutting staff by 20 percent just to make ends meet,” he explains. This forced plenty of talented professionals to become freelancers, frankly, to earn a paycheck.

It was survival — not luxury. This is a stark contrast to today, where gig owners — from marketers and designers to writers — actually choose to branch out on their own.

IT professionals were among the first to gig.

For those outside of the freelance field, the concept of working for yourself brings visions of extended mid-day luncheons, writing sessions in your bathrobe with a glass of bubbly, and high-end vacations across an ocean. In 2010 — and let’s be real, even now — that’s far from the case.

At the core of every freelancer is the diligence to build a business. And though there have always been writers and artists who refused to report to the man, Dermer shares one of the leading industries of freelancers a decade ago were IT professionals.

As soon as companies realized they could hire-out this position, they omitted full-time hires quickly and made the role demand-based.

As Dermer notes:

Many companies that laid off a significant amount of staff were left with many projects that needed to be completed and a lot less budget to do it and that’s where the gig worker came in especially in areas like IT.

What was the gig economy like in 2010? It was more competitive.

2010 was more competitive.

In 2010, Jennifer Johnson, a freelance communications and marketing consultant, relied heavily on content mills for most of her income. And there wasn’t as much variety in terms of SEO writers, Instagram specialists or interactive, app designers.

The internet/industry market was still starting, and those on the frontlines, like Johnson, were able to break their way in:

I made a very good living picking titles from a queue, mostly for, researching the topics I wanted to write about and submitting them for publication. I could easily write several $15 articles in an hour. Client work, however, was harder to come by.

As with anything, the gig economy is 2010 was both bad and good news for freelancers. Or as Dermer puts it, it was great news when it opened up a variety of opportunities outside the construct of having a traditional office gig.

Then, marketing technology and social media were still in its infancy, as brands adjusted to a new normal. Those who really ‘got it’ could capitalize on their genius. But for every brilliant resume on the table, there was another one next to it. And with fewer openings in 2010 than now, it required a different level of networking.

“That competition comes from the fact that virtually anybody can hang a shingle to compete for various projects,” Dermer adds. Today, the same is true but there’s more supply.

It was the year that jumpstarted entrepreneurs.

Johnson graduated in the heart of the recession and couldn’t find a full-time job with benefits. She wanted to work for a company but without hope in sight, she was forced to join the ranks of freelancers. Though it wasn’t her original intention, it set her up for a long-winded career as a solopreneur.

Many people who were recent grads during this period were faced with the choice to try and moonlight, return to college, or move in with their parents. For Johnson, working with a variety of clients proved to be something she enjoyed, and without realizing it, she carved her own path:

I wanted to make connections with people and help them succeed, as well as build long-term job skills. So I kept going after these gigs. It was a tough few years earning money in the gig economy, but eventually, I worked my way up to several clients on monthly contracts. To make it in the gig economy, you have to be a hustler, willing to learn on the fly and sometimes work long hours. That’s the reality.

2010 set the tone for future generations with the gig economy.

2010 set the tone for future generations.

Let’s go a little backward here: wages, in general, have been stagnant since the 1970s, according to Johnson. And health plans over the last several decades have become more and more complex (and expensive), especially self-employed ones.

So in 2010, when workers fled to gig opportunities to make ends meet, pay their bills and support their families, they didn’t realize they’d be setting the tone for future generations. Or in other words, as Johnson puts it: that eventually, social security and pensions would evaporate:

The risk of layoffs rocks the foundations of once stable-careers, and the cost of living keeps rising. Add to this the number of people who don’t have enough saved for retirement and astronomical costs of student loans, and you have generations of people needing the gig economy to survive. Boomers can’t fully retire. Gen Xers are struggling to care for their children and their aging parents at the same time. Millennials are drowning in student debt and low wages all while being blamed for all the ills of society, and Gen Z isn’t far behind.

Before this becomes far too overwhelming, remember this: Freelancing can help stimulate the economy, and contribute to the country’s bottom line. By stimulating this segment of the workforce, we can work to correct some of the distress the financial crisis — and the freelance scene of 2010 — created.

In future posts, we will explore the gig economy trend, how to make it sustainable, and other strategies for the new decade ahead in 2020.