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Freelancer growth giving rise to 'slasher' careers

Dan Nainan is one part standup comedian, one part computer consultant. A former Intel engineer, he took a comedy class to help get over stage fright. Now he travels the world telling jokes. But he still finds time to fix computers.

America isn't just the "land of the free" any more. We’re rapidly becoming the land of the freelancer.

In an increasingly virtual work world, an estimated one-third of U.S. workers — more than 42 million men and women — no longer report to traditional 9-to-5 jobs. Instead they belong to a growing freelance segment of the labor force, an often skilled class of career jugglers and independents who create mosaic incomes from contract gigs, projects, part-time jobs, temp work, moonlighting and consulting. This freelance nation fills the gaps that corporate America no longer wishes to cover with full-time salaried employees.

As Daily Beast Editor Tina Brown famously observed, “No one I know has a job anymore. They've got gigs.”

It is a sea change from the old postwar vision of Middle America, where a previous generation often expected to work for the same company and at the same job for an entire career. Now many workers think in terms of projects, not jobs, as they freelance in between full-time positions or because independence means greater career flexibility, says social entrepreneur Marci Alboher. The author of the forthcoming "The Encore Career Handbook," Alboher sees enormous opportunities in this gig economy for those workers willing to do some "reframing" to develop a necessary package of survival skills.

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“Instead of what you want to do forever, think about what you want to work on for a year or two,” said Alboher, vice president of the Civic Ventures think tank on boomers, work and social purpose. “Instead of one job, think about a series of engaging commitments with periodic gaps for personal break, retraining or travel in between.” 

One increasingly common path for accomplishing this transition to the gig economy is to become what Alboher calls a career "slasher":  the lawyer/chef, accountant/artist or bartender/actor who combines multiple careers by choice or financial necessity. Slasher Alexandra Grabbe has found her career satisfaction as an innkeeper/writer on Cape Cod, where she turned an unexpected challenge into the opportunity of a lifetime.

After working as a radio talk show host and other jobs in Paris, Grabbe returned home to Massachusetts to care for elderly parents. Instead of bemoaning her situation, she ended up transforming the family home into an eco-friendly Cape Cod bed and breakfast. Her days are full — she’s up early cooking breakfast from organic ingredients, making the beds, tending the flower gardens, baking fresh bread for her guests — but Grabbe also squeezes every spare minute to pursue her passion: writing. She’s a blogger and aspiring novelist, and this year self-published an e-book about Wellfleet, Mass., the seaside community where she lives.

“I do the B&B because it’s a good, steady income,” she said, “but I can’t imagine not being a writer.”

Dan Nainan, who travels the world as a comedian but does computer work to help pay the bills, feels much the same way.

Nainan’s on-stage career began after he took a comedy class in order to get over a fear of public speaking. His first act was so successful it ended up leading to him giving presentations for Intel, where he worked at the time.

Ultimately, he was able to expand his audience beyond Intel engineers and headline his own comedy shows. It’s a change in career path that has surprised even Nainan.“I never knew I was going to be a comedian,” said Nainan.  “I was never really the class clown. I was more the guy who got beaten up for liking 'Star Trek.'”

Holding down two jobs can be grueling, especially when one of them requires you to be creative and produce original content. Standup comedian Dan Nainan explains how he does it.

But Nainan said even if he were able to make a living doing standup, he would probably keep helping people with their computers, because he enjoys the work.

According to Alboher, a “slash” combo of gigs is a great way to make a transition to a meaningful encore career over time, as well as acting as a hedge in a difficult economy, where one item on your career buffet might tank while the other still thrives. Making multiple gig bets increases the odds of success, said Alboher. “Your passion work may not pay the bills.”

The ranks of the freelance nation continue to grow in the current economy as national unemployment remains near 8 percent and many frustrated workers seek out career options that better fit their lifestyles. The gig economy also has been a haven for experienced  workers in a wide range of occupations, including the service industry, construction and retail trade. “On average, contingent workers range in age from about 35 years for one category of temporary workers to about 48 years for self-employed workers,” according a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

This growth is evident at the nonprofit Freelancers Union, which offers health insurance and resources for independent workers, and has seen its membership increase to nearly 200,000 since New York lawyer Sara Horowitz founded the organization in 1995. “It’s really been a steady growth since we started,” said Horowitz,  a MacArthur “genius” fellow and author of “The Freelance Bible,” which will be published in November by Workman Press. “The numbers climb every day. This movement is building organically.”

John Makely / NBC News

Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union.

Horowitz says the 42-million-worker estimate for the gig economy is probably too small. The last time the Bureau of Labor Statistics  compiled comprehensive data on independent workers was in 2005. That was before the 2007-09 recession, which has likely boosted the ranks of slashers and freelancers. She notes that President Barack Obama has proposed a new count of independent employees — defined as anyone who works outside of a full-time salaried job with benefits — but Congress has yet to provide the funds.

Part-time jobs have become a fact of life for many Americans. The Bureau of Labor reports that 8.6 million people involuntarily worked part-time jobs in September for economic reasons, including the inability to find full-time positions or slack demand. More than 18 million people, however, indicated they work part-time to fit their lifestyles, citing personal reasons –such as family obligations, enrollment in school or the desire to scale back work hours at retirement age.

The flow of more workers into the gig economy is driven by a variety of factors, Horowitz says, and is not simply because of the recession-driven desire of employers to hire by project instead of creating more permanent positions.

For one thing, opportunities have increased as technology has made it easier than ever for individuals to connect with gigs and network with other free-lancers. Websites such as Elance, Freelancer and Task Rabbit make it increasingly easy for designers, writers, programmers, translators,  marketers and many others to find contract jobs. At Elance, 57 percent of free-lancers reported an increase in earnings by working with businesses online; many also said they expected to increase their earnings in 2013, according to a September 2012 survey of more than 3,000 site users.

Horowitz says her group's members often mention a desire for meaningful independence. "They want to be able to spend more time with their kids. They want to work toward something they believe in. They want to choose what they’re working on. Even many of the free-lancers who were forced by the recession to go independent say they wouldn’t go back to traditional work."

Related: Q&A about the future of freelancing

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NBCNews.com contributor Donna Wares is a writer and editor based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @donnawares