It’s Important to Ask the Right Questions

Henning 48/Wikimedia
Henning 48/Wikimedia

A recent article in The Economist examined the “gig” economy. You know, people selling crafts online, offering their services as taxi drivers, renting their cars and spare bedrooms for short periods. Some folks even rent space on their driveways to commuters. It’s that old American ingenuity and, as it turns out, it’s difficult to quantify.

Analysts expected this employment revolution to be reflected in self-employment statistics. However, the self-employment rate in the United States has declined during the past two decades, according to Pew Research.

Why would self-employment be falling when more people appear to be offering services independently? The Wall Street Journal suggested several possibilities: 1) The gig model might not be prevalent even though some headline-grabbing companies rely on it; 2) It’s possible gig companies operate in industries that have always depended on independent contractors; or 3) people who do this work may report they are employees of the firms they work for rather than independent contractors.

The Economist concurred with the last, suggesting that people do not consider their gigs to be work. If that’s the case, then governments may not be asking the right questions when they try to assess the situation. A British survey that focused its queries on alternative employment found that about 6 percent of respondents participated in the gig economy.

Does it matter? Should anyone be concerned the dimensions of this segment of the economy are relatively unknown? The Economist suggests it is important:

“Measuring the gig economy matters. To get a clear picture on living standards, you need to understand how people combine jobs, work, and other activities to create income. And, this gets to the crucial question of whether the gig economy represents a positive or negative development for workers. All this makes it important for official agencies to have a go at measuring it.”

What’s the solution? The Wall Street Journal suggested the U.S. Congress might want to reconsider funding the U.S. survey of Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements. The last time it was conducted was 2005.

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