Professor Laura Tyson of the Haas Business School published a great piece last week about the challenges of the gig economy.https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/11/how-can-we-protect-workers-in-the-gig-economy/
She focused on digital labor platforms, noted that nearly 400 million people have posted resumes on Linked In The problem, and of course there always is one, is that as this contingent workforce has grown through the likes of Uber, Taskrabbit and Upwork, employment has not, since most of the work is done on an independent contractor basis. As such,these individuals are paid on a 1099 not a W2, and separated from the employment based benefits which provide the proverbial safety net via health insurances and retirement programs. She goes on to discuss the policy implications as well as the interesting coalitions being formed around this issue.
Although Professor Tyson discussed the independent contractor (IC) issue as a relatively new phenomenon, it is not. Independent consultants, and other professionals like real estate agents have faced this issue for decades. For many, creating the answer to the safety net issue was part of the calculus of starting their independent business in the first place. These individuals were making a deliberate choice to create an independent, professional lifestyle , another point that often gets lost in the IC debate.
From my research several years ago ( which clearly needs to be updated) a significant minority of ICs were able to secure benefits through a spouse. Further proof of that is that when we set up benefits programs for ICs the greatest interest was in tax deferred income and retirement products. Granted, the sample we were targeting included the highest paid ICs, so they would have had arguably the greatest economic flexibility. In the last 5-10 years, the IC ranks, thanks to the new digital platforms, have grown to include lower wage workers.
Conversely, according to a recent article in the Economist, the data does not support amazing growth in this IC economy, with the caveat that labor statistics are egregiously poor in both the UK and US . (Indeed, the US government discontinued the tracking of contingent workers in 2005 by eliminating the Contingent Work Supplement . Senator Mark Warner has requested that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the IRS reinstate it. ) In a 10/23 article, the author, Laura Gardiner, notes that the number of self employed workers in the US is actually falling and the proportion of full time workers in both countries has not decreased. Freelancers represent only 2% of the workforce in Britain.
Gardiner goes on to suggest that this non intuitive lack of growth may be the result not of bad statistics but of improper definitions. The gig economy, also the sharing economy, includes the 1099 worker but also encompasses the AirBnB hosts, for example, who don’t see that extra income from renting a room as job related. This is true for many participants in the sharing economy, suggesting that the true size of the current market activity may be significantly understated. In some cases the income may go unreported but in most it will just appear as 1099 income. As such, that may be the better metric to track.
The Bay Area Council Economic Institute did just that. It compared the growth in the number of 1099s issued ( not the dollar value) with the number of W2 returns by year and indexed for inflation. Although 1099s tended to peak and then retract after recessions, as demonstrated in 1990, 2001 and 2007 the pattern has changed. Since the financial crisis and attendant recession in 2009, 1099s issued has continued to rise, while W2s have shown greater variability.
By 2025, Tyson suggests the gig economy will approach $2.7 trillion in global GDP. Hopefully by then we will have a better understanding of how the marketplace functions, and a much better handle the policy infrastructure needed to support it to ensure the independence and flexibility it affords can be sustained.