Jobs: Is the gig economy overblown?
“Everything we thought we knew about the gig economy is wrong,” said Dan Kopf and Alison Griswold in Qz.com. For years, economists and pundits have fretted that the “conventional 9-to-5 job is dying out,” replaced by an economy dominated by independent contractors, freelancers, and temp workers summoned by smartphone apps. But data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week “threw that narrative out the window.” The share of Americans working in “alternative” work arrangements “is shrinking rather than rising”—from 10.9 percent in 2005 to 10.1 percent last year. The figures “baffled economists”; multiple independent studies have estimated soaring gig-economy growth. You’d expect that flexible-work apps such as Uber or TaskRabbit “would have much more significantly changed the workforce,” said Danielle Paquette and Heather Long in The Washington Post. But the numbers suggest that while certain fields, such as transportation, may be changing, “there is no dramatic shift away from traditional employment.”
It’s entirely possible that the latest statistics “understate real changes in the nature of work,” said Ben Casselman in The New York Times. The government’s numbers, “by design, do not include people who do gig or freelance work in addition to traditional jobs.” They also don’t fully capture new types of income-generating activities, such as renting out a spare room on Airbnb. Nor do the numbers reflect other profound labor force shifts that have left “many American workers with less security and fewer opportunities for advancement.” Many large companies, for instance, now outsource tasks such as cleaning or computer programming to temp workers or third-party vendors. Those workers typically receive lower wages and fewer benefits but are rarely “counted as alternative workers under the government’s definition.” The very diversity of “nontraditional” work today—from people who sell crafts on Etsy in their spare time to Lyft drivers to highly paid freelancers—makes the sector “increasingly difficult to quantify,” said Ruth Reader in FastCompany.com. But many of us have a side hustle: A recent survey estimated 57.3 million Americans perform some form of freelance work. Perhaps it’s time for the government statisticians to “start asking different questions.”
The data did unearth “some revealing shifts,” said Katia Dmitrieva in Bloomberg.com. Of the 10.6 million independent contractors today, a majority were men and a third were over 55, suggesting aging Baby Boomers are looking to “supplement incomes,” or find flexible jobs preferable. Indeed, nearly four out of five independent contractors said they prefer contracting to 9-to-5 work. That’s in stark contrast to the 5.9 million on-call and temporary workers, who skewed younger and were more likely to be African-American or Hispanic. Of that group, 55 percent said they’d prefer to hold a traditional full-time job. “That may be part of the reason why the numbers came in so low,” said Lydia DePillis in CNN.com. There are now more open positions than unemployed Americans. “With so many regular jobs available,” there’s less need to take a gig without a consistent paycheck.