What Does the On-Demand Workforce Look Like?

A new survey takes stock of the people on the ground who provide services like Uber’s and Instacart’s—as well as those workers’ needs and wants.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

There’s a large number of Americans—some have estimated as many as 53 million—who make up the so-called “1099 economy,” named for the tax form on which freelancers declare their miscellaneous income. Passing anecdotal glimpses of on-demand workers, a subset of this group, arise when another journalist decides to talk to an individual Uber driver (or even become one). But in general, there’s little out there to illuminate the lives of a group that is often just a statistic people like to mention before making some prediction about the future of work.

Uber did release some data earlier this year after conducting an internal survey of about 600 drivers, but those numbers might be best taken with a grain of salt, considering the company’s desire to influence media narratives. A new survey covering about 1,000 workers in the on-demand economy who were contacted through their employers might be more revealing of just who exactly is driving Ubers and filling Instacarts. Caveats abound—it was conducted mostly by Stanford students, independent of a sponsoring research organization—but the survey’s results nonetheless provide a starting point for getting a sense of both the basic demographic makeup of on-demand workers and their needs and desires.

The first finding is that most of the survey’s respondents were men:

The Gender of On-Demand Workers
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57 percent of them were white, but that’s still lower than the 77 percent of the U.S. that’s white:

The Ethnicity of On-Demand Workers
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The workers polled skewed young:

The Age of On-Demand Workers
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Most of them were single:

The Relationship Status of On-Demand Workers
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And the percentage of on-demand workers who had a college degree was much greater than the percentages for taxi drivers and workers in general:

The Educational Attainment of On-Demand Workers
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Now, let’s look at what they get out of their work as independent contractors. In this survey, the median hourly wage was $18:

Median Hourly Wages of On-Demand Workers, by Industry
Note: “Passive income” refers to money made from services such as Airbnb (Requests for Startups)

On-demand workers appear to be drawn to their jobs’ flexible schedules, but at the same time, the top factor in determining hours worked wasn’t “my family” or “my social life”—it was matching up with the times when demand (and wages) were highest:

On-Demand Workers’ Top Reasons for Becoming Independent Contractors
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The Top Factors That Influence On-Demand Workers’ Schedules
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And when those surveyed had stopped working with certain companies, they said that it was usually because they weren’t being paid enough or didn’t enjoy the work enough:

The Top Reasons Independent Contractors Stopped Working With a Specific Company
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Taking all of this together, the on-demand economy is demanding of its workers: They come for the flexibility, but then find themselves trying to align their days with peak demand (which doesn’t always match a typical 9-to-5 workday). This flexibility might become even more illusory as the companies that hire out on-demand workers start to feel pressure from investors and venture capitalists not just to grow but to become more profitable.

They might start getting more territorial. Uber, for example, just announced a partnership with Live Nation that will grant it exclusive drop-off and pick-up locations at more than 60 concert venues; it’s not hard to imagine that companies such as Uber might start getting possessive of their workers in a similar way, securing employees for themselves and keeping them away from competitors. In fact, they already are moving in that direction: A recent fee hike only hurts Uber drivers who don’t work as much. As on-demand workers follow that incentive by upping their hours, they’ll have even less of the flexibility that brought them to the on-demand economy in the first place.

Investors want these startups to scale, and they’ll need on-demand workers to be onboard in order to do that. Fast-forward a decade into the future though, and it’s not clear that there will be enough willing on-demand workers if wages don’t increase:

“Could You See Yourself Working as an Independent Contractor for the Rest of Your Life?”
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