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Who participates in the gig economy?

Who are gig economy workers?

Gig and independent workers are men and women, young and old, live across the country, and reflect the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of the country. Although there are some patterns in the demographic makeup of this population, there are also a lot of discrepancies between surveys. Much of this inconsistency stems from differences in how each survey defines independent work, since different groups are disproportionately represented in different types of arrangements.

There is not a single, typical gig worker

Age

Overall, people who engage in independent work are slightly more likely to be younger than traditional workers.1 Examining different work arrangements, freelancers tend to be older, whereas temp-agency workers2 and online-platform workers3 tend to be younger.

Gender

Breakdowns of the independent workforce by gender vary by survey; some report that there are more men than women,4 and others that there are more women than men.5 This inconsistency stems from the fact that men and women participate in different types of independent work and in different ways. Men are substantially more likely than women to participate in online labor platforms, and to rely on independent work full-time. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to earn supplemental income and to work part-time than men, matching patterns of employment more generally.6 Women are also particularly likely to engage in multi-level or direct marketing7 and to sell goods online.8

Race

In aggregate, the racial composition of the independent workforce is similar to that of the overall workforce.9 As with gender, though, examining the different types of independent work tells a more nuanced story. Agency temps, on-call, and contract company employees are more likely to be African American or Hispanic, whereas freelancers, consultants, and independent contractors are more likely to be white.10 People of color, then, are more likely to be in independent arrangements that are lower paid and offer less flexibility to workers.

Education levels

On most surveys, the independent workforce as a whole is slightly more educated than the overall workforce. However, the educational attainment varies by specific arrangement. Freelancers are more likely than traditional workers to have a postgraduate degree. Conversely, temp-agency and on-call workers are substantially less likely to have even a high school diploma.11

Geography

Independent workers are more likely than traditional workers to live in an urban area.12 There is a higher concentration of these workers in Western states,13 with a particularly high portion in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many online platform companies got their start.14

We have few data on how much gig work actually pays.

Many of the concepts we use to measure and think about earnings do not neatly apply to independent arrangements. By definition, many gigs are paid by the task or project, meaning the idea of an hourly wage does not necessarily apply. In addition, independent workers are often responsible for deducting expenses, making their gross earnings incomparable to W-2 wages, on which living wage calculations are based.

Since people turn to independent work for vastly different reasons, their financial needs and expectations similarly differ. It’s hard to know when low monthly earnings are the result of low pay and poor work conditions, or the choices of workers who may not rely on gig income to meet basic needs. Furthermore, some forms of independent work provide low wages and contribute to financial instability, while others provide much-needed income to smooth volatility from low-quality traditional jobs.1

Despite the challenges of measuring gig-work income, we do have some information about how earnings vary between independent arrangements. Freelancers' earning are similar to or above traditional workers, whereas temp agency and on-call workers tend to have lower earnings.2 In addition, people who work independently to supplement another source of income tend to make more than those who rely entirely on independent work.3

The independent workforce is heterogeneous

Taken together, these demographic data suggest that the independent workforce is deeply segmented. Some work pays particularly well, offers high levels of flexibility and control, and tends to be held by advantaged groups, often on a supplemental basis. Other independent work provides low wages, and tends to be held disproportionately by disadvantaged groups, who often rely on it for their primary livelihood.

The independent workforce is not one homogeneous group. Examining the differences of experiences and needs within this population is as important as understanding its significance in relation to traditional workers.