The fabled “gig economy,” which supporters (who are usually people who are already wealthy, rather than active participants in the gig economy) envision as a society in which most people are free agents, freelancers, free to work for many different places, all enabled by technology, is becoming a reality. Not just in trend stories about teachers who are paid so little they have to drive for Uber on the side, but in cold hard statistics about the nature of our entire work force. A new study out from Princeton economists shows the enormous growth in the part-time workforce over the past decade. Neil Irwin reports:
Most remarkably, the number of Americans using these alternate [temporary or on-call] work arrangements rose 9.4 million from 2005 to 2015. That was greater than the rise in overall employment, meaning there was a small net decline in the number of workers with conventional jobs...
The labor economists Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton found that the percentage of workers in “alternative work arrangements” — including working for temporary help agencies, as independent contractors, for contract firms or on-call — was 15.8 percent in the fall of 2015, up from 10.1 percent a decade earlier. (Only 0.5 percent of all workers did so through “online intermediaries,” and most of those appear to have been Uber drivers.)
That’s more than a 50% increase in the past decade. This is a bona fide economic trend. Employers, of course, are generally happy to have fewer full-time employees, because it enables them to lower costs. For workers though, this trend can lead to disaster. If we allow companies to increasingly push employees into part-time status, we have to strengthen our nation’s public social safety net correspondingly to replace the things that are being lost with the loss of full-time employment. That means a strong public health care system, a strong Social Security system, and widely available social services for all.
Otherwise, you’re not just pushing workers off the books. You’re pushing them off a cliff.