Running the numbers on the gig economy
“New terms are being used in relation to this emerging type of work, such as ‘gig workers’ and ‘gig economy.’ BLS does not have a definition for these terms, and there is no generally accepted definition among researchers. Many definitions of gig workers include people in temporary jobs, independent contractors, on-call workers, and day laborers…However, many definitions also include people in types of work arrangements that did not exist when the survey was last fielded.”
—Electronically mediated work: new questions in the Contingent Worker Supplement, Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2018
It seems obvious to anyone who’s job-searched over the past five years—and to anyone who’s used a smartphone to order a pizza, call a ride home, or hire someone to clean the house, buy groceries, assemble IKEA furniture, or impersonate them at their own birthday party. Gig economy work is the boom that keeps on booming—especially when it comes to work enabled by startup-backed mobile platforms that connect customers directly to services. And even as the unemployment rate dips, employment itself seems to be more frequently taking the shape of these contingent, subcontracted roles, without benefits or even a stable schedule.
I mean, all you have to do is read the latest trend piece, download the latest Gallup report, or watch the latest streaming show centered on gig work: This phenomenon is taking over society as we know it.
This anecdotal stuff is compelling, but as a personal finance journalist, I’ve always been about the numbers. So I wondered: Where is the data on digital-platform gigging—and how prevalent is this new work reality, really?
For the last several years, labor watchers have been waiting on the Bureau of Labor Statistics to weigh in with real figures. Until this past month, it had been 13 years since the BLS released data from the “Contingent Worker Supplement”—a periodic addendum to its monthly Current Population Survey. (And some of my favorite bedtime reading!) How to account for the delay? Apart from several major U.S. political transitions, the rise in platform-based employment since the second Bush administration did require adjustments to account for “how the Internet and mobile apps have led to new types of work arrangements,” according to the BLS’s statement on redrafting the supplement.
The result of this long-awaited inquiry? (Drumroll, please…) The BLS estimates that “electronically mediated workers” account for only 1 percent of U.S. employment.
To the growing forces of Uber/Lyft/Via drivers, Postmates/Seamless/GrubHub delivery people, Instacart shoppers, Handy housekeepers, and TaskRabbits, 1% might seem…a little low. The authors of the BLS report note that the four questions in the Contingent Worker Supplement “did not work as intended” and will need to be “substantially revised” in the next attempt to quantify the gig labor force, admitting: “It may simply be that the concepts are too complicated for four questions to properly identify all the information BLS was attempting to measure.”
This isn’t the first lower-than-expected (by me, anyway) measure of the gig economy. A recent JPMorgan Chase survey pegged the percentage of U.S. platform-based workers at a slightly higher 4.5% over the course of 2017. (The survey sample was limited to customers in the 23 states where Chase has branches.)
But even if we disregard these numbers, it’s impossible to ignore how technology has become the key labor issue of the 21st century, with AI and automation joining the gig economy as forces that will totally redefine how we work. To paraphrase the BLS, even as we scramble to find answers, it might just be that we’re not asking the right questions.