Mitchell’s Musings 5-2-16: The Gig is Up (or is it?)

28 Apr 2016 4:17 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-2-16: The Gig is Up (or is it?)

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Have you been hearing or seeing excited reports about the “gig economy”? Punching the phrase into Google produced 485,000 references. Here is one of them that provides a definition:

A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. The trend toward a gig economy has begun. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. There are a number of forces behind the rise in short-term jobs. For one thing, in this digital age, the workforce is increasingly mobile and work can increasingly be done from anywhere, so that job and location are decoupled. That means that freelancers can select among temporary jobs and projects around the world, while employers can select the best individuals for specific projects from a larger pool than that available in any given area…[1] [underline added]

The use of the phrase “gig economy” seems to have developed with the visibility of transportation services such as Uber and Lyft which depend on independent contractors to drive their cars. I particularly call your attention to the prediction above that by 2020, forty percent of workers will be independent contractors. How plausible is that prediction, given that changes in work arrangements tend to evolve slowly and that we are already in 2016?

The forty percent prediction must have seemed plausible to the person that wrote the item cited. But did he/she check to see what the current proportion is that is projected to go to forty percent in a space of four years? Specifically, did he/she check the numbers that are available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)? If you go to the BLS website, you won’t find a data series called ”gig workers.” But you will find data on self-employed workers which is what independent contractors are. Of course, some self-employed workers do such things as run small retail stores or are proprietors of other businesses. So gig workers are a subset of the self employed.[2] Still looking at the ratio of self-employed workers to wage-and-salary workers should give us a sense of any trend and the magnitude of the gig phenomenon.

As the chart shows, the ratio of self-employed workers to wage and salary workers depicts a long-term downward trend and certainly no rise in recent years.[3] Note that the ratio measure slightly overstates the proportion of total employment represented by self-employed workers. But we are talking about a proportion of around 6%.[4] So the idea that the proportion is going to be 40% in a mere four years is implausible. More than 50 million workers would have to be converted from “regular” status as wage-and-salary employees to self-employed, even if you assume that all self-employed workers are independent contractors.[5] Perhaps a more interesting employment-related question than the trend in gig workers is the presence of incentives for journalists to exaggerate workforce developments.



[2] We are ignoring the litigation challenging that independent contractor status of some gig workers.

[3] I used March data (seasonally adjusted) since March is the latest month available at this writing.

[4] There is a small number of “unpaid family workers” that is omitted from the chart and the calculation. Early in the period on the chart, such workers were more numerous but they are a minor fraction of the workforce today.

[5] One might argue that perhaps the new gig workers will be moonlighters with regular jobs and a gig job. But the proportion of moonlighters, like that of the self employed, has shown a long-term decline. The proportion is about 5%. See

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