There are several ways to estimate the size of the gig economy and independent workforce. Some count the total number of workers who participate in any form of independent work. Some only count those who rely on independent work for their primary earnings. Others count only particular types of arrangements, like online platform work or subcontracted arrangements. For each of these measures, numbers vary based on how each particular survey defines independent work. A closer examination of the similarities and differences of the definitions used in each study can be found in the Research section of the Data Hub.
More than a quarter of workers participate in the gig economy in some capacity.
Some measures of the gig economy include any worker who engages in independent work in any capacity—online or offline, with regular or occasional participation, and for primary or supplemental earnings. This includes workers who hold traditional wage and salary jobs, including full-time jobs, as well as those who only do gig work.
MBO Partners,1 the Freelancers’ Union,2 and McKinsey Global Institute3 each have conducted online surveys of the national workforce that indicate between 25 and 30 percent of workers had engaged in independent work on a supplementary or primary basis in the preceding month. Since large-scale public surveys, like those administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tend not to ask about supplemental work, these private surveys are some of the best estimates we have.
The estimates vary based on the definition of independent or gig work used, the time frame considered, and the population that was sampled for the survey. The largest estimate of non-traditional work available—40 percent of the workforce—is from a Government Accountability Office analysis of General Social Survey (GSS) data, and includes standard part-time work, which most experts would not consider an independent or alternative arrangement.4
- 1. 26.9 percent of the workforce engaged in independent work arrangements. MBO Partners, “The State of Independence in America” (Herndon, VA: 2018), https://www.mbopartners.com/state-of-independence. More information about this and subsequent studies in the Research section of the Data Hub.
- 2. 32 percent of the workforce engaged in independent work arrangements. Edelman Intelligence, “Freelancing in America: 2017,” (New York: Upwork and Freelancers Union, 2017), https://www.upwork.com/i/freelancing-in-america/2017/.
- 3. 27 percent of the workforce engaged in independent work, identified by characteristics including autonomy and short-term relationships between workers and customers. Manyika, James, Susan Lund, Jacques Bughin, Kelsey Robinson, Jan Mischke, and Deepa Mahajan, “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy” (Washington, DC: McKinsey Global Institute, 2016), http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/independent-work-choice-necessity-and-the-gig-economy.
- 4. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Contingent Workforce: Size, Characteristics, Earnings, and Benefits,” GAO-15-168R (Washington, DC: April 2015), https://www.gao.gov/assets/670/669766.pdf.
More than one in ten workers rely on gig work for their primary income.
Less than half of those who participate in the independent workforce rely on gigs for their primary income. According to the most recent Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 10.1 percent of workers rely on alternative arrangements for their main job, including temp agency work, on-call work, contracted work, and freelancing.1
This number remained stable since 2005, the last year the CWS was conducted. Other estimates are slightly higher. In 2015, economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger2 replicated the CWS, and estimated that 15.8 percent of workers relied on alternative arrangements as their main job. In 2014, on the General Social Survey, 20.4 percent of employed respondents reported an independent arrangement, using a similar definition to the CWS.3 The discrepancy between studies could be the result of differences in sampling and methodology, or the different economic conditions at the time of the studies. More consistent, comprehensive data collection is needed in order to understanding the relationship between participation in alternative work arrangements and broader economic conditions.
Some private surveys ask about full-time gig work, and produce comparable estimates of full-time gig workers, between 10 and 13 percent of the workforce.45 Synthesizing existing studies, we estimate that those who rely entirely on gig work in order to make a living comprise less than half of all gig workers. The rest of people who work independently do so on a supplemental basis, in addition to part- or full-time traditional work or another income source.6 Further research is needed to fully understand how gig work fits into the broader labor market.
- 1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements – May 2017” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2018), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/conemp.pdf.
- 2. Katz, Lawrence and Alan Krueger, “The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995–2015,” Working Paper 22667 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2016), http://www.nber.org/papers/w22667.
- 3. Smith, Tom, Michael Davern, Jeremy Freese, and Michael Hout, "General Social Surveys, 1972-2016," Machine-readable data file (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2018). Data accessed from the GSS Data Explorer website at gssdataexplorer.norc.org.
- 4. The Freelancers’ Union “Freelancing in America” reports that 10.4 percent of the workforce engages in full-time independent work, using respondents’ own understandings of full-time. Edelman Intelligence, “Freelancing in America.”
- 5. MBO Partners’ “The State of Independence in America” reports that 12.3 percent of the workforce engages in full-time independent work, defined as more than 15 hours per week. MBO Partners, “The State of Independence.”
- 6. Some surveys ask explicitly about the ways in which workers combine arrangements. The Freelancers Union survey found that 26.7 percent of the workforce combined independent work with part-time or full-time traditional work.
Less than one percent of workers regularly use online platforms to connect with work opportunities.
Online platforms like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit garner much media attention. These platforms, which connect workers with specific types of gigs, only represent a small portion of independent workers. Whether measured using surveys,1 tax returns,2 or bank account activity,3 less than one percent of workers have used online platforms to arrange work in the past month. Some estimates are higher because they use a broad description of online work, and include selling goods or taking online surveys, in addition to labor intermediary platforms, or ask about participation over a longer period of time.456
- 1. Katz and Krueger’s replication of the CWS reports 0.5 percent of the workforce uses an online platform. Katz and Krueger, “The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work."
- 2. Treasury Department analysis of IRS records estimate 0.7 percent of the workforce uses an online intermediary. Jackson, Emilie, Adam Looney, and Shanthi Ramnath, "The Rise of Alternative Work Arrangements: Evidence and Implications for Tax Filing and Benefit Coverage" (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Tax Analysis, 2017), https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/tax-analysis/Documents/WP-114.pdf
- 3. JPMorgan Chase Institute reports 0.5 percent of account holders earned income from a labor platform in the past month. Farrell, Diana and Fiona Greig, “The Online Platform Economy: Has Growth Peaked?” (New York: JPMorgan Chase Institute, 2016), https://www.jpmorganchase.com/corporate/institute/document/jpmc-institute-online-platform-econ-brief.pdf.
- 4. The Freelancers’ Union “Freelancing in America” reports that 4 percent of the workforce used online platforms in the past year. Freelancers and MGI at 4%, Pew at 24% with the broadest definition. Edelman Intelligence, “Freelancing in America.”
- 5. McKinsey Global Institute’s “Independent Work” reports that 4 percent of the workforce used online platforms, including some capital platforms, in the past year. Manyika et al., “Independent Work.”
- 6. Pew Research’s “Gig Work, Online Selling, and Home Sharing” reported that 8 percent of the population used labor platforms in the past year, using a particularly expansive definition of online work that includes completing online surveys. Smith, Aaron, “Gig Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016), http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/17/gig-work-online-selling-and-home-sharing/.
Gig work requires new ways of measuring work
Many types of independent work do not fit neatly into the categories we usually use to measure the workforce. Ideas like "job" and "employer" don’t always make sense, meaning we might need new ways of asking questions and measuring the number of workers. For example, the Federal Reserve asks about income-earning activities rather than jobs, since people may not describe informal sources of income as jobs. In another new approach, the Internet Association measured the number of online-platform accounts held by workers, reporting 23.9 million accounts.1
Each of these approaches is discussed more fully in the Research section of the Data Hub, along with information on the sampling and methods of each survey. Despite some differences, across these measures, independent workers are a significant part of today’s workforce.
- 1. It is difficult to estimate the number of people working on these platforms, since many people likely hold multiple accounts. Hooton, Christopher, “America’s Online ‘Jobs’: Conceptualizations, Measurements, and Influencing Factors,” Business Economics (October 2017), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3059816.