Acton Institute Powerblog

Is the gig economy really reshaping our work?

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We continue to hear doomsday prophecies about the future of work, with much of the fear focused on the recent growth of the so-called “gig economy”—a swirling sphere of temporary, flexible, and increasingly independent work.

Epitomized by services like Uber and Airbnb, and scattered across a wider variety of independent and web-based work, the expansion of the gig economy has caused many to ponder whether its rise might mean the end of traditional long-term employment and a gloomy future of depressed wages, decreasing benefits, and ongoing uncertainty.

But has the rise of the gig economy been overstated? If so, what might it tell us about the challenges and opportunities it poses for the average worker?

Although previous studies have shown a steady increase in “alternative work arrangements” (the government’s term), a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows a slight decline since 2015 (from 11 to 10 percent).

“You can see the gig economy everywhere but in the statistics,” writes Ben Casselman in the New York Times.

Noting that the government’s numbers “do not include people who do gig or freelance work in addition to traditional jobs” and “may not fully capture income-generating activities that people might not consider ‘work,’ like renting out a home on Airbnb,” Casselman goes on to ponder why the results are so different from studies of the past:

One possibility is that the boom in gig-type jobs was real but that as the economy has improved, more people have been able to find traditional work. Part-time work, which surged in the recession, has fallen in the recovery, and employment by temporary-help services has leveled off. If true of alternative work more broadly, that would suggest that what many commenters interpreted as a structural shift in the economy was instead a temporary result of a weak labor market.

It is also possible that the new data understates real changes in the nature of work. The government’s standard tools for measuring employment have struggled to capture the shifting employment landscape. For example, the Current Population Survey, the monthly survey used to calculate the unemployment rate and other key measures, shows that self-employment is falling, even as tax data from the Internal Revenue Service has shown the opposite.

The government plans to release a follow-up report this fall, which will include more details and break-outs of relevant data and groups (such as online workers). But as we wait for more clarity and counter-analysis, Christians can still reflect on the complexities of these developments and enrich our imaginations when it comes to the future of work.

If the gig economy is, indeed, rapidly expanding (according to previous studies), it poses new cultural challenges in boosting our entrepreneurialism and risk-taking while also edifying our attitudes toward ownership and stewardship. It also means new opportunities to assume more proactive postures in pursuing our work—aligning our hearts and hands not according our own comforts, security, and retirement plans, but according to love and service for our neighbors, no matter where it takes us.

Likewise, if the gig economy is, indeed, slowing or steadying (according to this latest report), we can pause and consider why and whether that’s a good thing. It may be, for example, that the government is finally starting to catch up with such disruptions, and that the Ubers of old will have a harder time finding a foothold in an increasingly micro-managed economy. Or, in a more positive light, it may be that the disruptions of the gig economy have sparked a positive response among traditional employers—whether by inspiring renewed increases in employee benefits or healthy corrections in wages and/or prices among the (once) entrenched and protected.

In either case, we have already seen (and can begin to expect) that the innovations and freedoms brought by the gig economy are bound to offer fruits beyond their more turbulent sphere. Its underlying uncertainties needn’t inspire fear for the future, but more intentionality as we go about our daily economic activities.

Our economic witness is not determined by the soothsaying of planners, professors, and politicians. The gig economy and its various fluctuations and manifestations should encourage us, showing that we have numerous and channels for creative service, and that—however big or small it grows—there are surely more to come.

Image: Mark Warner, Uber Application (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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