How many gig workers are there?

There are several ways to estimate the size of the gig economy and non-standard workforce. Some count the total number of workers who participate in any form of non-standard work. Some only count those who rely on this work for their primary earnings. Others count only particular types of arrangements, like online platform work or subcontracted arrangements. For each of these measures, numbers vary based on the exact wording of questions. A closer examination of the similarities and differences of the definitions used in each study can be found in the Research section of the Data Hub.

More than a quarter of workers participate in the gig economy in some capacity.

Some measures of the gig economy include any worker who engages in non-standard work in any capacity—online or offline, with regular or occasional participation, and for primary or supplemental earnings. This includes workers who hold traditional full-time jobs in addition to gigs, as well as those who only do gig work.

MBO Partners,1 the Freelancers’ Union,2 and McKinsey Global Institute3 each have conducted online surveys of the national workforce that indicate between 25 and 35 percent of workers had engaged in non-standard or gig work on a supplementary or primary basis in the preceding month. Since large-scale public surveys, like those administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tend not to ask about supplemental work, these private surveys are some of the best estimates we have of supplemental or occasional gig workers.

The estimates vary based on the definition of gig work used, the time frame considered, and the population that was sampled for the survey. The largest estimate of non-standard work available—40 percent of the workforce—is from a 2017 Government Accountability Office analysis of General Social Survey (GSS) data, and includes standard part-time work, which many experts would not consider a non-standard arrangement.4

More than one in ten workers rely on gig work for their primary income.

Less than half of those who participate in gig work rely on gigs for their primary income. According to the most recent Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 10.1 percent of workers rely on alternative arrangements for their main job, including temp agency work, on-call work, contracted work, and freelancing.5

This number has remained stable since 2005, the last year the CWS was conducted. Other estimates are slightly higher. In 2015, economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger6 replicated the CWS, and estimated that 15.8 percent of workers relied on alternative arrangements as their main job, although they later revised their estimate and concluded it was much closer to the 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement numbers. In 2014, on the General Social Survey, 20.4 percent of employed respondents reported an independent arrangement, using a similar definition to the CWS.7 The discrepancy between studies could be the result of differences in sampling and methodology, or the different economic conditions at the time of the studies. More consistent, comprehensive data collection is needed in order to understand the relationship between participation in non-standard work and broader economic conditions.

Some private surveys ask about full-time gig work, and produce comparable estimates of full-time gig workers, between 10 and 13 percent of the workforce.89 Synthesizing existing studies, we estimate that those who rely entirely on gig work in order to make a living comprise less than half of all gig workers. The rest of those who take on gigs do so on a supplemental basis, in addition to part- or full-time traditional work or another income source.10 Further research is needed to fully understand how gig work fits into the broader labor market and how it contributes to household incomes.

About one percent of workers regularly use online platforms to connect with work opportunities.

Online platforms like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit garner much media attention. These platforms, which connect workers with specific types of gigs, only represent a small portion of non-standard workers. Whether measured using surveys,11 tax returns,12 or bank account activity,13 roughly one percent of workers have used online platforms to arrange work in the past month. Some estimates are higher because they use a broad description of online work, and include selling goods or taking online surveys, in addition to performing services arranged online, or ask about participation over a longer period of time.141516

Chart showing the number of workers in the gig economy as share of the total U.S. workforce

Gig work requires new ways of measuring work

Many types of gig work do not fit neatly into the categories we usually use to measure the workforce. Concepts like “job” and “employer” don’t always make sense, meaning we might need new ways of asking questions in order to accurately measure non-standard workers. Some researchers have taken new approaches. For example, the Federal Reserve asks about income-earning activities rather than jobs, since people may not describe informal sources of income as jobs. In another new approach, the Internet Association measured the number of online-platform accounts held by workers, reporting 23.9 million accounts.17

Each of these approaches is discussed more fully in the Data Hub’s Research section, along with information on the sampling and methods of each survey. Despite some differences, across these measures, non-standard workers are a significant part of today’s workforce.

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