The “gig” economy has captured the attention of technology futurists, journalists, academics and policymakers.
“Future of work” discussions tend toward two extremes: breathless excitement at the brave new world that provides greater flexibility, mobility and entrepreneurial energy, or dire accounts of its immiserating impacts on the workers who labor beneath the gig economy’s yoke.
These widely diverging views may be partly due to the many definitions of what constitutes “gig work” and the resulting difficulties in measuring its prevalence. As an academic who has studied workplace laws for decades and ran the federal agency that enforces workplace protections during the Obama administration, I know the way we define, measure and treat gig workers under the law has significant consequences for workers. That’s particularly true for those lacking leverage in the labor market.
While there are benefits for workers for this emerging model of employment, there are pitfalls as well. Confusion over the meaning and size of the gig workforce – at times the intentional work of companies with a vested economic interest – can obscure the problems gig status can have on workers’ earnings, workplace conditions and opportunities.
Defining gig work
Many trace the phrase “gig economy” to a 2009 essay in which editor and author Tina Brown proclaimed: “No one I know has a job anymore. They’ve got Gigs.”
Although Brown focused on professional and semiprofessional workers chasing short-term work, the term soon applied to a variety of jobs in low-paid occupations and industries. Several years later, the rapid ascent of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash led the term gig to be associated with platform and digital business models. More recently, the pandemic linked gig work to a broader set of jobs associated with high turnover, limited career prospects, volatile wages and exposure to COVID-19 risk.
The imprecision of gig therefore connotes different things: Some uses focus on the temporary or “contingent” nature of the work, such as jobs that may be terminated at any time, usually at the discretion of the employer. Other definitions focus on the unpredictability of work in terms of earnings, scheduling, hours provided in a workweek or location. Still other depictions focus on the business structure through which work is engaged – a staffing agency, digital platform, contractor or other intermediary. Further complicating the definition of gig is whether the focus is on a worker’s primary source of income or on side work meant to supplement income.
Measuring gig work
These differing definitions of gig work have led to widely varying estimates of its prevalence.
A conservative estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics household-based survey of “alternative work arrangements” suggests that gig workers “in non-standard categories” account for about 10% of employment. Alternatively, other researchers estimate the prevalence as three times as common, or 32.5%, using a Federal Reserve survey that broadly defines gig work to include any work that is temporary and variable in nature as either a primary or secondary source of earnings. And when freelancing platform Upworks and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. use a broader concept of “independent work,” they report rates as high as 36% of employed respondents.
No consensus definition or measurement approach ha