The latest data on the “gig economy” is, like everything about the gig economy, a Rorschach test for the future of work. Depending on how you look at them, short-term, casual, and contract jobs are growing and shrinking, both disrupting everything, and changing less than you think.
The “contingent worker survey”—an analysis of Census and federal labor statistics on employment that is informal, self-employed, or otherwise “nonstandard”—suggests that, since the data was last issued in 2005, precarious gig work has not drastically altered the labor force, as many feared. The number of jobs that are unstable, or not firmly attached to an employer, has plateaued at about 10 percent. Separately, the category of “contingent workers,” who hold irregular or temporary jobs generally lasting less than a year, hovers around 6 million workers, or 4 percent of the workforce.
So apparently the so-called “age of disruption” isn’t changing everything? It certainly feels like gigdom is ever-present—with our ubiquitous shopping and communications apps, our streets swamped by Ubers.
Beyond employment statistics, however, the new labor landscape must be viewed multidimensionally: The relatively small portion of the workforce categorized as “gig” doesn’t amount to a revolution (or an epidemic, for that matter), but a symptom. In absolute numbers, the nonstandard workforce has gained hundreds of thousands of workers over the past 12 years—rising from 14.8 million to 15.5 million nationwide—but this has been offset by the expansion of other regular jobs in tandem. But, by definition, unstable and casual work often isn’t captured in official employment statistics, since it’s typically used as a “side hustle,” perhaps supplementing other work. Separate surveys reveal that one in three workers are engaging in gig-type work on top of regular jobs. That means that there is a real pattern of work becoming more marginal and unstable, because of a deeper wave of precarity bleeding through the workforce.
Nearly six in 10 contingent workers are in service industries, such as hotels and restaurants, or in retail jobs—typically in stores or online sales—or in the care sectors of education and health, ranging from home-care aides to preschool staff. A common thread is that the nature of this work has a destabilizing impact on the workers’ lives—low wages, unpredictable hours, and fewer, if any, protections or benefits. We’re not all gig workers, but more of us are working bad jobs, while the regulations around work in general steadily unravel.