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Nothing Changed?

What the BLS CWS tells us about today, and what it doesn't tell us

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The BLS released an updated version of its 2005 survey. From the phone calls we have been receiving, many are surprised to see how little change there has been in the numbers in the past 13 years. The headline is that about 10% of the workforce (and mostly independent contractors) are in contingent work arrangements.

Here is why these numbers might be so much smaller than other surveys, and seem to be at odds with how the “gig economy” is often understood. Workers creating their "portfolios of work" have very different experiences than workers with one main job.

  1. Supplementary vs Primary: The BLS data is very focused on a “primary” job. Gig workers are often assembling many different kinds of work together that may or may not be a main job yet an important part of their income.
  2. Timing: The BLS survey asks about work in the past week. We know that many people use freelance, gig and independent work irregularly. Yet this work is an important part of their income. The Upwork/Freelancers Union survey asks about the past year, and has a much higher number.
  3. Identity: The legal issues over worker misclassification are not just about employers, but a genuine confusion over whether an Uber driver self-identifies as a full-time, part-time, temporary or independent worker. Ask different drivers, get different answers. Surveys show that many of us have self-identities inconsistent with older survey categories.

The BLS survey, in short, tells us that 1) the kinds of questions we asked in 2005 will still have roughly the same answers in 2018 but 2) those questions might no longer be the right ones to ask.

Our ways of thinking about work are not keeping pace with how we are actually working.

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