The world of work has changed quickly and irrevocably in the last 20 years. In the mid-90s if you had an office job, then that’s where you worked – in an office. Now the proliferation of flexible and mobile working patterns means the phrase ‘office job’ is fast becoming defunct.

In fact, the real surge in working patterns started as recently as 2008 with the credit crunch, which sparked job losses up and down the country. Among those who suddenly found themselves out of work were jaded City slickers with cash to invest in a new career.

The rise and rise of the one-man band

That contributed to a rash of startups, causing self-employment figures to spiral. In 1975 just 8.7% of workers were self-employed and by the time of the last recession – more than three decades later – the figure had reached 12%.

But in the seven-ish years since then, the figure has accelerated at warp speed to around 16%. Analysts are now seriously entertaining the possibility that the number of self-employed will soon surpass those working in the public sector.

According to official data, self-employment jumped 71,000 in the final quarter of last year to 4.61m. That compares with 5.35m public-sector workers, down in number nearly 60,000 year-on-year.

Meanwhile the UK’s stock of businesses, which includes the self-employment figures, has also shot up since 2008 and in 2015 the official figure hit 5.4m. The overwhelming majority of these (5.1m) are micro-businesses employing fewer than ten people.

A mixture of factors has contributed to the change. One is people losing their jobs in the financial crisis. Another is increasingly powerful technology allowing people to start up on their own; a third is the rise of freelancers, commissioned to do quick jobs without the liabilities and costs of full employment.

The desire for a better work-life balance is another motivator, as is the rise of the ‘mumpreneur’, new mothers who don’t want to go back to work, or can’t afford to, but can make money in a balancing act childcare. Presumably there are dadpreneurs too, although the term hasn’t caught on yet. The list goes on and on.

Out of turmoil, positive change

The growth of thousands of new, small, agile businesses has created a new ecosystem within the private sector. Around it thousands more businesses have sprung up – from coffee shops to software vendors – to serve customers thriving in the new environment.

It all makes for a rather enticing investment environment; here are just a few examples of businesses that have benefited:

  • Apps that help make business easier – Slack, Evernote, Dropbox and so on
  • Cloud services that help people work for themselves, most famously Uber and Airbnb
  • Payment and accounting services aimed at small businesses, including Xero and Crunch
  • Hot-desking services such as deskcamping, Workspace, Hubble and NearDesk
  • Independent coffee chains and snack bars (with good, free wifi)
  • Dedicated meeting rooms and event spaces
  • Computer accessories brands, particularly those related to mobile
  • Business-friendly restaurants, bars and hotels

Add these businesses to the thousands of freelancers, consultancies and service firms started by people leaving the workforce and you have an enormous opportunity to back a winner.

While the vast majority of these new businesses will stay small, some will chance upon a gap in the market and use it to grow. A few will become $1bn global unicorns.

So if you are considering where to make your next investment in a spritely up and coming business, you could do a lot worse than picking one that serves the mobile workforce. One thing’s for sure: we won’t be returning to the old ‘office job’ system any time soon.