The rise of Uber has convinced many pundits, economists, and policymakers that freelancing via digital platforms is becoming increasingly important to Americans’ livelihood. It has also promoted the idea that new technology—particularly the explosion of platforms enabling the gig economy—will fundamentally alter the future of work.
While Uber and other new companies in the gig economy receive a lot of attention, a look at Uber’s own data about its drivers’ schedules and pay reveals them to be much less consequential than most people assume. In fact, dwelling on these companies too much distracts from the central features of work in America that should be prominent in the public discussion: a disappointingly low minimum wage, lax overtime rules, weak collective-bargaining rights, and excessive unemployment, to name a few. When it comes to the future of work, these are the aspects of the labor market that deserve the most attention.
Curiously, the best evidence of Uber’s relatively small impact on the American labor market comes from data released and publicized by the company itself. David Plouffe, an Uber strategist, began a recent speech by saying, “I want to talk today about the future of work—specifically, the fact that a growing number of people are engaging in flexible and freelance work because of the sharing economy or through on-demand platforms.” He highlighted the large number of people driving for Uber, saying, “Uber currently has 1.1 million active drivers on the platform globally. Here in the U.S., there are more than 400,000 active drivers taking at least four trips a month.” As he went on to list the number of drivers in the biggest American cities, he said, “The numbers show just how attractive this type of work is to people around the country.”