Fewer workers participated in “alternative work arrangements” last year than in 2005, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Does this mean that the gig economy is on the decline?
Maybe the real question is whether the gig economy was ever the seismic cultural shift it appeared to be in the first place.
“One possibility is that the boom in gig-type jobs was real but that as the economy has improved, more people have been able to find traditional work,” wrote Ben Casselman at The New York Times. “Part-time work, which surged in the recession, has fallen in the recovery, and employment by temporary-help services has leveled off. If true of alternative work more broadly, that would suggest that what many commenters interpreted as a structural shift in the economy was instead a temporary result of a weak labor market.”
Experts noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ tally doesn’t include workers who hold gigs as well as traditional jobs or who make extra cash by renting the occasional room through Airbnb. But a recent study from the JPMorgan Chase Institute found that American workers who take gigs through platforms like Uber and Lyft typically do so only a few months out of the year. In addition, average earnings for gig workers have dropped over the past few years, perhaps in part because these workers are putting in fewer hours.
“People aren’t relying on platforms for their primary source of income,” said Fiona Grieg, director of consumer research for the institute and co-author of the study, in an interview with The Associated Press.
What’s the Future of the Gig Economy?
If workers are leaving gigs for jobs, it’s easy to see why. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 49 percent of Americans received health insurance through an employer in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available.
While some state governments have looked into creating a framework for portable benefits for contingent workers, most people in the gig economy are on their own. The Affordable Care Act has made it possible for more independent workers to buy health insurance, but there’s no federal program supporting paid sick time, vacation time, retirement benefits, and so on.
However, it’s probably too soon to say whether the workforce is shifting back toward jobs — and whether newly minted employees will leave gigs behind. The economy is strong, and unemployment low, but real wages — the value of workers’ pay with inflation taken into account — are 9.5 percent lower than in 2006. Workers may yet decide to hold onto their side gigs, even while enjoying the stability of full-time jobs.
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