The Gig Economy and the Current Scene

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a report on contingent labor, or the gig economy. They tabulated the number of workers who held contingent jobs, defined as those that are temporary or that the workers don’t expect to last.

Fewer People Hold Contingent Jobs than in 2005

But the figures were highly surprising. Headlines have been filled over the last several years with highly publicized gig economy work, ranging from Uber to lesser-known companies that hire people to do tasks, ranging from standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to designing a website.

Headlines have also been filled with the prediction that the gig economy will be where the jobs are increasingly in the future.

Well, apparently the BLS is here to say it ain’t so. In May 2017, when the survey was conducted, 3.8% of the U.S. workforce was contingent. That’s 5.9 million folks.

But the last time the survey was taken, in 2005, contingent workers made up 4.1% of the U.S. workforce.

In other words, the percentage of workers in the gig economy actually dropped between 2005 and 2017, in contradistinction to almost every prediction.

Contingent workers include on-call, freelance, and temp workers as well.

What the Numbers Said

What’s the reason for the drop in contingent workers?

Well, the BLS was laconic in giving an explanation. The primary report was simply an itemization of the facts.

The 2017 figures were divided as follows: 10.6 million were independent contractors, 2.6 million worked on-call, 1.4 million worked through agencies that supplied temporary help, and 933,000 worked through contract firms.

Roughly one-third of contingent people worked in education and health services. Two-thirds of all independent contractors were male.

But the MIT Technology Review quoted officials from the Aspen Institute with one possible explanation. There is a growing number of gig economy workers, perhaps, supplementing their incomes with contingent work but not relying fully on it. Because the BLS survey was intended to measure the primary source of employment, supplemental work was neither asked about nor counted.

It is clear from the BLS numbers that many contingent workers are not fully pleased with the situation. Over half, 55%, said they would prefer a permanent position.

The BLS survey also didn’t discuss whether the current robust economic pictures affected the drop in contingency.

Future of Contingent Workers Unclear

As the MIT Technology Review points out, however, the drop in the contingent workforce very likely means that issues concerning gig economy employment will be of less impact in the political arena.

Contingent workers generally do not receive benefits such as health insurance or vacation time. Situations like a sudden lengthy illness can be a financial hardship for contingent workers, who may not have health insurance and are not paid if they need to be off work.

Politicians may have responded to the needs of contingent workers for health insurance and other benefits, or the perceived inequality of contingent/salaried workforces, had the numbers risen. But the drop means all these issues may be taken off the table for discussion.

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