I write this article as a freelancer. I take Lyft to get around. I’ve booked an apartment this summer through Airbnb. I’ve been an adjunct professor. I’ve just gotten estimates for roof and other home repairs from men who work for themselves.
All of these activities are part of a large universe of what’s come to be called the “gig economy” in America, the contentious subject of a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Thursday.
The study found that about 15.5 million Americans work in contingent, or short-term, jobs and/or in “alternative work arrangements,” including as independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary agency workers, and workers sent out on jobs by contract firms. A majority of these workers is men, and African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid sectors of the gig economy. Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, says that 55 million Americans are independent workers, and the Government Accountability Office puts the number even higher. “Establishing a statistical definition of the gig economy is no easy task,” as a 2016 Congressional Research Service report said.
Whatever the number, the gig economy is a sign of the growing precariousness of work in America. With artificial intelligence and other technologies threatening to further reduce the need for full-time workers, it’s imperative that labor law and social policies change.