Spike in Online Gig Work: Flash in the Pan or Future of Employment?

Siddharth Suri and Mary L. Gray

Most conventional jobs involve hierarchy. A boss divvies up work to the office’s full-time employees awaiting direction and a green light. While still true for the majority of American workers, a growing number of people are picking up work online — accepting jobs with companies that assign, schedule, route, and pay for work through websites or mobile apps. This on-demand “gig work” is unraveling the typical job. Yet none of our current workplace statistics or labor laws reckon with the new employment reality turning APIs into shift managers. Our research team spent the past two years conducting one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of its kind to learn about the lives of on-demand gig workers. One of our greatest challenges was that we didn’t have a representative sample of American workers that could validate and enrich our findings. That is…until now.

We shared our survey questions and preliminary findings with the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science and Tech as they designed their survey, “Gig Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing.” Pew wanted to develop a better way to gauge how many people, from a representative sample of the U.S. population, participate in gig work, ridesharing (think apps like Uber and Lyft) and homesharing (via sites like Airbnb and VRBO). It is hard to get a good headcount of those earning an income in the gig economy because the words to describe these jobs change with the launch of a new on-demand service or court case challenging what it means to “work” for a mobile app. Ridesharing and homesharing are more visible in the media. But a variety of jobs are quietly shifting online to become on-demand gig work, too. TaskRabbit and Thumbtack, for example, connect consumers with trade workers available to do the task. Crowdflower and Amazon Mechanical Turk are two of the more popular “crowdsourcing” platforms. They offer companies a way to post tasks online to a pool of people who have signed up to sift through the platform’s online listings of work opportunities. These public crowdsourcing platforms are the tip of the spear. Today, nearly every large tech company developing artificial intelligence uses proprietary services like these. The on-demand labor that AI-fueled jobs create is hard to measure, let alone see. The typical jobs performed on these platforms are white-collar office gigs, like transcribing audio, labeling images, and reviewing social media material flagged as “adult content” or “not safe for work.”

Before Pew’s report, scholars and policymakers had only the Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements survey, last run in 2005, to estimate the size and growth rate of this workforce. A lot has changed since then but worker surveys never caught up with the technology trends radically altering the workplace.

The Pew’s findings confirmed everything we learned. It is the perfect complement to our roughly 200 in-person interviews, tens of thousands of survey responses, dozens of behavioral experiments and big data analyses of gig work platforms. It also spotlights how quickly temp and contract work have changed for U.S. workers since the Great Recession.

According to the Pew report, about 5% of the U.S. population, or 1-in-20 people, does some form of online gig work. To put that in perspective, online gig work was a far more common source of income than homesharing (at about 2%) or ridesharing (around 1%).

How important is earning money from gig work to those who do it? Are we talking about college students earning beer money or people trying to put food on the table? According to Pew:

  • Only 8% of those surveyed said the money they earned from selling goods online is “essential for meeting my basic needs.”
  • Eighteen percent said the same of money earned from homesharing.
  • But roughly one quarter of those doing gig work reported that the money they earned was essential for meeting their basic needs.
  • Another one quarter said the money was important.

According to the Pew analysis, “workers who describe the income they earn from these platforms as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ are more likely to come from low-income households, more likely to be non-white and more likely to have not attended college.”

The reliance on gig work income reported in the Pew survey is echoed in our own survey of over 2,000 gig workers, collected across 4 different platforms. Over half of our study’s respondents reported that they had a minimum amount of money that they needed to make that month from gig work.

Part of gig work’s appeal is a chance to manage one’s own workflows. Of the people who said doing gig work was “essential” or “important” in the Pew survey:

  • Just under half reported that they do this work because they have a “need to control their own schedule.”
  • Another quarter said there was a “lack of other jobs where they live.”

In fact, according to one of our study’s experiments, gig workers were willing to take somewhere between a $0.40/hour and $0.80/hour pay cut to work on tasks that allowed them some degree of control over when they complete the task. And almost every one of our interview participants described balancing care for a loved one or completing a school program as the kind of constraint that pushed them to seek online work. Clearly, people do this kind of work because they need the job, they need to control their schedules and/or they don’t have a lot of employment options in their hometowns.

Pay attention to online gig work because it is dramatically reshaping our society. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Al Krueger estimate that conventional temp and alternative contract-driven work rose from 10 to 16%, accounting for all net employment growth in the US economy in the past decade. Assuming Pew’s trends continue at the current rate, by the year 2027, nearly 1 in 3 American adults will transition to online platforms to support themselves with on-demand gig work. This is only bad news if we do nothing to change the outdated laws and structures in place to support working people. Ignoring corporate and consumer dependency on an on-demand gig workforce is not a sustainable strategy.

Pew’s study is robust proof that the world of work — what we spend most of our time doing — is quickly moving online. Platform start-ups are cropping up every day to connect people directly with employers for short-term gig work. There is no evidence that this trend will reverse and every indication that the move to on-demand gig work is well underway. The future of work will look more like the apps and web-based platforms that we have been studying the past two years than the “traditional” employment around (some of us) today. These workers may be difficult to see but they are vital to the future of our economy. Our country cannot afford to leave them behind.


Siddharth Suri (@ssuri) is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, New York City. Mary L. Gray is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Associate Professor at Indiana University and Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. They are writing a book about workers’ experiences of the on-demand economy. You can read more about their research at www.inthecrowd.org.

 

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