You can see the gig economy everywhere but in the statistics.
For years, economists, pundits and policymakers have grappled with the rise of Uber, the growth of temporary work and the fissuring of the relationship between companies and their workers. Optimists cheered the flexibility offered by the freelance life. Pessimists fretted about the disappearance of traditional jobs, with the benefits and legal protections they provided.
That debate has played out largely in the absence of solid data. But last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its first in-depth look at nontraditional work since 2005, and came to a startling conclusion: The old-fashioned job remains king.
Roughly 10 percent of U.S. workers in 2017 were employed in some form of what the government calls “alternative work arrangements,” a broad category including Uber drivers, freelance writers and people employed through temp agencies — essentially anyone whose main source of work comes outside a traditional employment relationship. Far from a boom in gig work, that represents a slight decline from 2005, when about 11 percent of workers fell into those categories.
“I think everybody’s narrative got blown up,” said Michael R. Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Strain and other experts cautioned that the data did not signal that the American workplace had remained static over the past decade. The government’s numbers, by design, do not include people who do gig or freelance work in addition to traditional jobs, and they may not fully capture income-generating activities that people might not consider “work,” like renting out a home on Airbnb.
Separate data released by the Federal Reserve this month found that nearly a third of adults engaged in some form of gig work, either as a primary job or to supplement other sources of income. Private-sector surveys have reached similar conclusions.
Nor does the bureau’s data reflect other changes that have left many U.S. workers with less security and fewer opportunities for advancement. Many companies, for example, now outsource large parts of their business to subcontractors. Employees of those firms will not, for the most part, count as alternative workers under the government’s definition. But they generally earn less and receive smaller benefits than equivalent workers employed directly by large companies, and they have far-less opportunity to move up the corporate ladder.
“In my view, it’s this domestic outsourcing that is the big change in why wages don’t rise and why workers feel so insecure,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “And we have only the most indirect data to show it.”
Economists have long argued that the most visible kinds of gig work are a relatively small part of the overall labor market, and that nonstandard work arrangements long predated the emergence of app-based platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit. (Uber’s impact was somewhat visible in the data: The number of independent contractors in the transportation and utilities industry increased by about 200,000 from 2005 to 2017.)
The report did not break out online workers; a follow-up report scheduled for September will do so.