Workforce Development

Earning Income Through the On-Demand Economy: Asking and Answering the Big Questions

March 17, 2016  • Libby Reder

Key Points

  • We need more — and better — data telling us about on-demand workers.
  • No single study will tell the whole story of the gig economy.

How many people in the United States are earning income through Uber, TaskRabbit, Airbnb, Etsy, and other online platforms? Do these people rely on online platforms for all of their income, or do they use online platform work to supplement another job or source of income? How do these workers relate to the rest of the labor market?

In an attempt to explore these questions and others, the Aspen Institute Future of Work InitiativeNew America, and the JPMorgan Chase Institute recently convened a small luncheon roundtable called “Data and the On-Demand Economy.” Participants represented government agencies with data collection efforts aimed at answering these questions planned or underway, independent and academic researchers, on-demand platforms, think tanks, and other thought leaders. The session sought to understand what we know about work and workers in the on-demand economy, what we don’t know, and how we can improve knowledge exchange across the research community.

Here are three key insights from this event.

  1. We need more — and better — data. Participants vigorously agreed there is a lack of credible data available about those who earn their income in the online platform economy. This type of information is critically important as we seek to understand how these emerging work platforms connect to the overall employment picture and labor market. It’s also important to have as we look at issues of financial security and income volatility, and as we explore policy concepts related to the future of the social compact.
  2. Language and definitions matter. The language used in surveys to prompt individuals to describe the work they do can have a big impact on results. This may be especially true in efforts to understand individuals with multiple jobs or income streams, as respondents may not think of some income generation as “work.” Further, more traditional approaches that ask individuals to classify themselves as working either full-time, part-time, self-employed or unemployed may be revealing only one portion of an individual’s financial reality.
  3. No single study will tell the whole story. Participants expressed widespread enthusiasm for US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez’s decision to fund the Bureau of Labor Statistics to re-run the Contingent Worker Supplement, a national survey collecting data on temporary work, in 2017. That effort will undoubtedly make a significant dent in the need for more data. However, every study has limitations, and no one research agency or data analyst will be able to provide the perfect picture of the trends we are seeing. That is why conversations like these are so important — the research community as a whole must align efforts. Complementary research approaches by data collectors is the only way to yield a more comprehensive view of on-demand labor.

The Future of Work Initiative is committed to advancing this important conversation. Stay tuned for additional information on our work and please feel free to contact us if you would like to be involved.

Libby Reder is a fellow at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative.