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In media coverage, policy discussions, and everyday conversation, we hear a lot about on-demand platforms, freelancers, independent contractors, nonstandard work, and the “gig economy.” But what do these terms really mean? How is work actually changing? Are we destined to become a nation of “gig workers,” or are the forecasts all hype?

Many data sources suggest the nature of work is indeed changing, with workers increasingly engaging in short-term and project-based work outside of, in or addition to, full-time, long-term employer-employee relationships. Workers in these alternative arrangements face unique challenges. They experience high levels of income volatility and have less access to work-related benefits. Many businesses have turned to alternative work arrangements, including subcontracting and independent contracting, for labor outside of their core competencies. These arrangements allow firms to rapidly adapt to market pressures and can maximize short-term returns.1 These types of arrangements, and the workers who hold them, are central to our changing economy.

But each data source – whether from government, academia, or the private sector – asks different questions and applies different definitions of independent work. These discrepancies make it difficult to understand trends and identify solutions to the challenges presented by non-traditional work.

Researchers need to engage with and build off of one another’s work. Journalists need to write about what we know and don’t know accurately and with proper context. Policymakers need to make informed decisions about a variety of domestic policy areas that relate to the non-traditional workforce – including health care, the tax code, social insurance programs, workforce training, and workplace protections. And the general public needs to understand how work is changing on as they develop their opinions about what types of policies they support. The Gig Economy Data Hub is a collaborative project between the Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative and Cornell University's ILR School that aims to provide accessible, comprehensive information for anyone interested in better understanding the scope and nature of non-traditional and gig work today.

  • 1. For a discussion of the changing nature of work as it relates to broad economic trends, see the Future of Work Initiative's report "Toward A New Capitalism."

Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative

The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative is a nonpartisan effort to identify concrete ways to address the challenges American workers and businesses face due to the changing nature of work in the 21st century. Several trends are impacting workers and businesses today, and could bring dramatic transformations in the years ahead: the weakening social contract between workers and employers, the increased importance of access to education and skills resulting from new technologies and increased automation, and the pressure to produce short-term profits rather than long-term value. Rather than waiting to react to future disruptions, it is critical to develop solutions that address the changes transforming the U.S. economy. The Initiative focuses on policy ideas at the federal, state, and local level to:

  • Improve economic security for both traditional and independent workers
  • Expand investment in and access to effective education and training programs
  • Reduce pressure on public companies to prioritize short-term profits and encourage investment in long-term value creation

Established in 2015, the Initiative is driven by the leadership of Honorary Co-Chairs Senator Mark R. Warner and Purdue University President and former Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels, Co-Chairs John Bridgeland and Bruce Reed. Executive Director Alastair Fitzpayne leads an Aspen Institute staff, based in Washington, DC.

Cornell University's ILR School

Cornell University’s ILR School is the leading college of the applied social sciences focusing on work, employment, and labor policy issues and practices of national and international significance.
ILR's mission is to prepare leaders, inform national and international employment and labor policy, and improve working lives. ILR generates and disseminates leading-edge knowledge to solve human problems, manage and resolve conflict, advance best practices in the workplace and inform government policy.
Through its Outreach Division, the ILR School trains professionals and organizational leaders across the for-profit, not-for-profit, and government sectors, building union and non-union organizational capacity from front line managers to practitioner specialists and top leadership.
Founded at Cornell University in 1945, the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations was dedicated to the common interest of employer and employee. As the world of work evolves, the school's teaching, research and outreach continues to advance.