Is Gig Work Our New Normal?

Maybe not, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Lyft driver places the Amp on his dashboard on January 31, 2017 in San Francisco, California.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Lyft

The media drumbeat about the gig economy and the future of work is intense. We’re told gigging is the wave of the future and virtually everyone has or will need a side hustle. Flowery narratives tell us that soon we’ll all be contractors instead of employees, working in the bliss of endless flexibility and the chance to be our own boss. Or, the doomsayers suggest, we’ll all be scraping together a living from multiple hustles, without any security or reliable benefits. But what does the data tell us about the real prevalence of the gig economy?

Brand new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests both these narratives might be overhyped.

Starting in 1995, the BLS first collected data about contingent work, also known as temporary work (this includes seasonal work like beach lifeguards and construction workers whose jobs end once the building is complete), and about something they call “alternative work,” which encompasses job situations like on-call work (think substitute teachers), temp agency employees, freelancers, and independent contractors. That data found 4.9 percent of workers were contingent.

BLS looked again as recently as 2005 and found about 4.1 percent of workers were contingent (a number not considered significantly different from the 1995 data). But it hadn’t looked into what was going on with alternative and temporary work since. Finally, in 2017, they collected new data, which they just released last week. Most analysts expected to see the number of alternative and contingent workers rise, but the data shows no overall increase in the percentage of people working in alternative arrangements since 2005. In fact, it shows a slight decline in the number of people working in contingent jobs: 3.8 percent.

As always, however, the devil is in the details. First, these new numbers only focus on people’s primary jobs or modes of employment, and other research suggests that a large percentage of those in alternative work arrangements and gig work are doing it as a side hustle, rather than as their main way of earning a living.

Second, there’s the fact that BLS data focuses on work done only in the week prior to the survey, and so it may be missing people who sometimes gig to earn a living, but haven’t done so recently. There is a lot of turnover in digital platform work, and workers may not be working consistently on these platforms, but rather, intermittently, as their needs change. Think, for instance, of the Uber driver who tells you he’s out driving after his day job, trying to raise money for an upcoming vacation or to dig his family out of debt. If he gave up driving two weeks before taking the survey, he wouldn’t be counted in these numbers.

Third, there are a handful of new questions in the data about digital platform work and the gig economy that are still being analyzed and won’t be available until the fall. We still don’t have a full picture of the number of Americans who use digital platforms to sell their labor (or goods and services)—think not just Lyft drivers but people who use the web to find work as babysitters or handymen or run an Etsy shop. These workers may not be counted in these data because the BLS data are gathered from self-reported information about employment. We don’t know exactly how these online gig workers think of themselves: Self-employed? Business owner? Or independent contractor? Business owners and certain self-employed workers aren’t counted as contingent or alternative workers, so gig workers who think of themselves as business owners—as many Etsy sellers do, for example—will be missed by these definitions. Without the analysis that shows us the Venn diagram of the overlap between the missing digital questions and the ones released last week, we won’t have a good sense of the size of the digital platform part of the gig economy, and how much of it is covered by this most recent BLS data release.

Or, it could be that these new gig jobs we keep hearing about are replacing other kinds of independent and contract work, rather than substituting for more traditional, permanent, salaried positions. Or that we’ve already passed peak “gig” and that because these jobs aren’t as terrific as we might think, that people tried them, and in a robust job market, are leaving them for more stable, traditional jobs.

Nevertheless, the BLS data are among the highest quality data anyone collects on the shape of work, and these 2017 numbers can and should be directly compared to 2005 to give us a sense of how things have changed. And the truth is, we don’t see a lot of difference, outside of some slight downturns in independent contracting. Overall, there isn’t the kind of roaring change we might have expected, given the gig economy’s current hold on our imaginations.