Is the “Gig Economy” Just Another Buzzword?

Let’s not mince words: Millennials and Gen Zers have it rough.

Student loan debt in American households has tripled over the past 15 years, retirement pensions are quietly disappearing, and according to Freddie Mac, we are experiencing a critical housing market shortage by, oh, about 1.6 million properties.

Adding more salt to the wound, compared to the 90 percent of Americans born in the 1940s who reportedly outearned their parents by age 30, only 50 percent of millennials born in the 1980s can claim the same.

But hey, we have avocado toast. Yay.

The Advent of the Gig Economy

There is a silver lining, however.

With ballooning livings costs and increasingly absurd tuition fees, millennials have ushered in the era of gig-based supplemental income known as the Gig Economy: a fluid, task-based labor pool that has disrupted (and in some cases, entirely dismantled) traditional industries.

Think Uber disrupting taxis. Taskrabbit replacing gardeners. Airbnb displacing hotels.

In most major cities, social change is occurring (literally) at our fingertips via downloadable apps.

Are you craving a roasted portobello wrap from that new vegan place five miles away? Don’t worry, Postmates will deliver to your door inside of fifteen minutes.

Don’t know anyone with a truck to help you transport furniture? No worries, Lugg is there for you at half the cost of professional movers.

Even long-established brick and mortar businesses such as Sears and Toys-R-Us have fallen prey to the shift in consumer culture, yielding to the instant gratification of Amazon Delivery and a hundred other direct-to-home services.

As technology grows more sophisticated, so too do our expectations for social transformation.

More of a “Fizzle” Than a “Bang”

Now for the sobering news.

Despite optimistic projections from leading economists, it seems like the gig economy hasn’t quite revolutionized the traditional workforce just yet. At least, that’s what the numbers are telling us.

Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released an in-depth report indicating that the prevalence of “nontraditional work” (i.e., professional freelancers, Uber drivers, etc.) hasn’t actually grown since 2005. According to the BLS, 3.8 percent of the American workforce, or about 5.9 million people, held “contingent” jobs as of May 2018––a slight dip from the 4.1 percent recorded in 2005, the last time this survey was conducted.

Of course, no survey is perfect. There were more than a few evident gray areas in the BLS report, such as its ambiguity of language and its focus on primary income as the benchmark for contingent work.

In reality, “nonstandard employment” is a massive umbrella with hundreds of offshoots: AirBnB renters, Etsy craft hobbyists, Instagram brand ambassadors, and others typically considered as “gig workers” were notably excluded from the BLS survey

Still Relevant, Then?

Since the BLS report was not designed to include individuals who freelance in addition to their primary job, there are those who call to question whether these findings are massively underrepresenting the prevalence of gig workers––namely, the Federal Reserve.

In a separate study, the Federal Reserve reported that almost one-third of employed adults engaged in the gig economy, either full time or to supplement their primary income.

These findings more closely resonate with Intuit CEO Brad Smith’s approximation of the gig economy tapping in at around 34 percent of the current workforce––and his estimation of that number growing to 43 percent by 2020.

Katharine G. Abraham, a University of Maryland economist who served as commissioner of the BLS during President Clinton’s term, also chimed in on the inadequacies of survey polls. “The questions on our standard surveys don’t probe into the nature of these arrangements,” she explained to the New York Times, referring to conflicting data collected from the IRS. “We’re not asking the right questions, and they’re hard to answer anyway.”

So what does it mean if we can’t agree on the prevalence of the gig economy? Or even a ballpark number of active gig workers?

Namely, our current methods to measure this phenomenon is akin to catching lightning in a bottle. Standard survey questions leave too much grey room in language and context. Random sample sizes are still, at best, approximations of larger, dynamic populations.

What the Bureau of Labor Statistics and accompanying measures can agree on, however, is that the traditional workforce still reigns supreme in the United States.

Gig work, aka “that side hustle,” is quickly becoming the most viable solution for supplemental income thanks to ever-improving technology, but has not reached a point of replacing traditional wages for millennials and Gen Zers. At least for now.

Rest assured, gig workers areout there. Once-considered “safe” careers such as architecture, engineering, mathematics, and the like are experiencing an influx of overqualified applicants, resulting in a massive deficit of available jobs for inexperienced workers.

And the fluid gig economy just might be the financial band-aid young post-graduates need while waiting for larger, economic reform.

Or at least a means to earn extra revenue while positioning themselves into those coveted high position titles.

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