Gettin' Giggy With It Despite the proliferation of apps like Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Uber, a new government report found no growth in people primarily doing this kind of work. Here's how the "gig economy" is and isn't changing.
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Gettin' Giggy With It

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Gettin' Giggy With It

Gettin' Giggy With It

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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Meet Nancy Givens. She's 46, lives in Alexandria, Va., and is a bartender at Union Station in Washington, D.C. And on the side for extra money, she drives for Lyft. And there's a big reason both of those jobs work for her. She's a people person.

NANCY GIVENS: I love meeting people. I love just people in general 'cause you meet amazing people driving Lyft. You meet some crazy ones. But for the most part you meet, you know, amazing people.

KURTZLEBEN: I talked to Nancy this week. And I got the impression that she's always on the move. She talked to me on her cell phone on her way to her bartending job. And when I say she bartends and drives Lyft, I want to be clear here. I don't mean she does one and kind of dabbles in the other. She goes hard at both. Even on a day when she has a bartending shift, she starts by driving people around.

GIVENS: I may get out the door about 6 a.m. and drops about - if I drop my last passenger off about 9:15, I'll turn my app off and then head to work.

KURTZLEBEN: And this is a day when she doesn't bartend.

GIVENS: On Monday, I'll start off early, drive till about 5 - maybe 4:30, 5 in the morning, depending. If there's, like, a scheduled ride for, like, maybe 3 in the morning, I'll take that. Just depends. So I might - well, let's just say the average 5 a.m. to about 12 p.m. And then I have the rest of the day, you know, to myself.

KURTZLEBEN: Altogether, Nancy estimates she usually does around 30 hours of bartending a week and 30 hours of Lyft driving a week.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Nancy is one of millions of Americans who does this kind of temporary, informal or independent work, often called gig work or the gig economy.

KURTZLEBEN: And that's a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit. And here, to be clear, we're using it to talk not only about people finding work on apps like Uber or Lyft but a lot of people who are freelancers, plus people with temporary jobs and other people who find gig work offline. Think some catering jobs, some people who are performers, a whole bunch of people.

VANEK SMITH: And gig work has been around forever. But people like Nancy are part of a massive shift in how that work - well, how that work works. Using apps to connect people to this kind of work is changing the economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. And today on THE INDICATOR, a statistical portrait of the gig economy. A major survey of this type of work just got updated for the first time in almost 13 years. We're going to look at that data - how informal work has changed the economy in the last decade or so and how it hasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: So we're going to start with something that does not seem to have changed - the traditional job. You know, you go to work. You fill out W-2s. You have a boss and a time card and everything. That still rules the labor market.

KURTZLEBEN: And this comes from this recent, really kind of surprising report from the Labor Department. It found that 10.1 percent of American workers in 2017 worked most of their hours at these kinds of alternative or gig work arrangements. The surprising thing is this - the share of people who primarily do that kind of work barely moved over time. If anything, it fell slightly from 10.7 percent in 2005, the last time we got this data, to 10.1 percent in 2017.

VANEK SMITH: Now, there are a couple of potential explanations for this. The job market is stronger today than it was in 2005, so maybe there are more traditional jobs to go around right now. And also, apps may have simply shifted some people from one kind of independent work to another. So say someone was a taxi driver in 2005. Now they might be an Uber driver.

KURTZLEBEN: But still, this is what blew people's minds about this report. Even after the rise of Lyft, Uber, TaskRabbit, Instacart, Airbnb, DoorDash, Etsy, Fiverr, Cleanly - all of these apps that allow people to easily work independently. and - on top of that, there's also been this health care overhaul that made it easier for people to get insurance outside of their traditional jobs. After all of that, it appears that people's preference for traditional work just hasn't budged.

VANEK SMITH: So let's go to a second statistic. How many people do gig work? After all, that Labor Department report we've been talking about only counted people who primarily do informal or independent work.

KURTZLEBEN: So that means someone like Nancy, who does roughly equal hours at driving and bartending - she may or may not have been counted by that survey, depending on the week. But when you use a more expansive definition of gig economy that includes people like Nancy, you get around one-third. A 2017 Fed survey found that 31 percent of adults had engaged in some sort of gig work in the prior month.

VANEK SMITH: So when you count all of this gig work that people do on the side, it's possible that the number of people doing gig work has climbed in recent years. Apps may not have changed the full-time workforce quite so much, but they've given a bunch of those full-time workers or even nonworkers things to do on the side.

KURTZLEBEN: And like we were saying before, most of those people prefer to do the work on the side. Four out of 10 are like Nancy. They have their day-to-day jobs, and gig work gives them some side income. Another 2 in 10 said they just do it for fun or as a hobby. So just to emphasize how part-time this gig work is for a lot of people, though, the typical person doing gig work spends five hours a month doing it - just five, according to that Fed survey.

VANEK SMITH: Five hours - so that is not a lot if you are looking at just one person. But that brings us to our third point. If more people are doing this informal work on the side, it raises this interesting question of what gig work is doing to the broader labor market.

KURTZLEBEN: So there's this recent study that found a really fascinating relationship here. Two economists at the Boston Fed found that this kind of alternative work is associated with lower wages even at other traditional jobs. So in areas of the country where there are more people with these alternative work arrangements, wages are lower across the board.

VANEK SMITH: The economists who wrote this study didn't uncover exactly why this is happening, but there are a few hypotheses. One is that in a lower-wage area, people just aren't paid enough, so they go out in search of gig work on the side. Low wages cause more informal work.

KURTZLEBEN: But the economists also had this other really intriguing theory that the causality works in the other direction. That is that if you have more people doing informal work, it helps lower wages because it means there's more labor for businesses to use.

VANEK SMITH: Here's an example of how this could potentially work. Think of it this way - a pizza place could hire someone to be their regular delivery person, paying them a regular wage, or they could use one of those on-demand delivery services like DoorDash. In other words, when more job seekers are out there, workplaces don't need to compete as much - that is, to raise wages - in order to hire new workers.

KURTZLEBEN: So that's one potential effect on wages. But that's not the only possibility. It's also possible that especially in a pretty healthy labor market, which we have right now - it's possible these side jobs can give some workers more leverage. Nancy had this really fascinating story about how driving for Lyft has changed her traditional job as a bartender. At one point last year, she was telling me that she was considering just quitting the bartending job and driving Lyft full time. I mean, she was kind of frustrated with bartending. She wanted a barback, an assistant to kind of help her out with some of the grunt work.

GIVENS: Well, I had planned on quitting my job last year. I had given them a 45-day notice. And - but I had been with the company so long, they were like, you know, well, wait a minute. What is it that you want? Because at that point, I never had - they never gave me a barback. So I was handling everything - moving kegs and, you know, liquor and all that. And so my body was just like, I just can't do it anymore, and they're not giving me any help.

And the male servers are standing around, watching me lift these heavy boxes, not helping. So I was like, you know what? I'll just quit. So my boss was like, well, what do you want? I said, well, I want to go part time. And I want to go part time, and give me a barback. So they got me the barback, and I was part time.

VANEK SMITH: She didn't get a raise, but she did get better working conditions. In this case, driving for Lyft affected her hours and someone else's hours. That barback she got to help her - it gave that person a job. And it also improved her own job satisfaction.

KURTZLEBEN: And all of this gave her more time to be a people person in her car, driving Lyft customers. Now, Nancy did tell me she drives for the additional income. But what also became clear is that for her, she also gets the fringe benefit that driving Lyft just makes her happy.

GIVENS: So that aspect of, you know, people just reaching out to you and telling you what's going on in their day or life or whatever. But just in general - meeting people just in general is what I enjoy about it.

KURTZLEBEN: And this gave me the excuse to ask her something I've really just always wanted to ask cab drivers or Lyft or Uber drivers.

Now I'm just curious. What's the breakdown of, like, people who want to talk and people who don't? Is it, like, 50-50?

GIVENS: I would say 75 percent want to talk...

KURTZLEBEN: Uh-huh (ph).

GIVENS: ...And 25 percent don't.

KURTZLEBEN: So there you go, Stacey, one more gig economy stat. According to this very nonscientific study conducted by Nancy, extraverts are in the majority.

VANEK SMITH: I can't believe that.

KURTZLEBEN: I know.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

KURTZLEBEN: I'm usually pretty quiet.

VANEK SMITH: I'm quiet, too. Are we weird? We're in the minority?

KURTZLEBEN: Nancy told me she likes quiet people as well, so it doesn't...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that's good.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: That's good.

KURTZLEBEN: If you ever end up in her car, you can be quiet.

VANEK SMITH: Well, I want to talk to her.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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