The workforce is getting Uberized. The gig economy is taking over the world. Independent-contractor jobs are the new normal. In the postrecession years, this became conventional wisdom, as more and more Americans took jobs—well, “jobs”—with companies such as Postmates, Fiverr, TaskRabbit, and Lyft. But the gig economy was then and is now a more marginal phenomenon than it might have seemed.
Last week two influential labor economists revised down their much-cited estimate of the size of the alternative workforce, meaning workers in temporary, on-call, contract, or freelance positions. Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Alan Krueger of Princeton had initially found that this workforce grew five percentage points in the decade up to 2015, accounting for nearly all job creation over that time period. Now they think it is more like one or two points. Their correction comes shortly after a major government survey—one that surprised a lot of labor and workforce experts—found that 3.8 percent of workers held “contingent” jobs as of 2017, roughly the same share as in 2005.
The gig economy might be new and big and radical and transformative. It might represent a powerful business model for venture investors and tech companies. But Uber and similar companies were not and are not driving tidal changes in the way that Americans make a living.