By Chris Maisano
You don’t have to be socialist to know that it’s tough going for workers today. For the last forty years, workers in the U.S. and around the world have taken a beating. Wages are stagnant at best, unions are on the decline, and “lean production” methods have dramatically intensified the labor process. Considering the situation, the only thing surprising about the modest uptick in class struggle in this country is how long it took to come to fruition.
It’s clear that the structure of the economy and the working class itself has changed dramatically. What’s less clear is whether we on the left have an accurate understanding of what’s driving these developments, and therefore what should be done to combat them. Unfortunately, left and mainstream commentators alike regularly overstate the trends toward ephemerality in today’s economy, and fixate on the most marginal labor market experiences at the expense of the main story. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the so-called “gig economy.”
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its latest data on contingent work and alternative employment arrangements. Despite the conventional wisdom that stable, long-term jobs are a thing of the past, BLS found that the share of workers in contingent and alternative forms of employment has actually declined since it started collecting this data in the 1990s.
According to the survey just 3.8 percent of all workers held contingent jobs in 2017, down from 4.9 percent in 1995 and 4.1 percent in 2005. As for alternative employment arrangements, the share of workers in this category has also declined to roughly 10 percent of the workforce. Of those, the lion’s share were independent contractors, a category that includes freelancers—the gig economy’s poster children. But even here, the data belies the conventional wisdom. According to the BLS, independent contractors were more likely than their counterparts in traditional employment arrangements to be to be involved in management, business, professional, financial, or construction occupations, and an overwhelming share of them (79 percent) prefer their situation to traditional jobs. They were also more likely to be white men over the age of 55. Perhaps most strikingly, only three percent of independent contractors were also contingent workers—the same percentage as workers in traditional employment arrangements.
While the BLS survey does not include data on individuals who found short-term jobs through online platforms (that information is coming later this year), what we currently have points in the same direction. A 2016 JP Morgan study of the online platform economy found that less than one percent of working adults—a vanishingly small 0.4 percent of the workforce—obtained employment through online labor platforms like Uber, Lyft, or TaskRabbit. It also found that turnover in the online platform economy is extremely high. According to the survey, one in six participants in any given month is new, and over half of participants leave it within a year. What’s more, overall participation in this economy has dropped sharply as the labor market continues to tighten.
Workers have always moonlighted when times are tough. What this data suggests is that the search for gigs has simply moved from the classified section of the local paper to our smartphones.
Of course, there is lots of other data out there purporting to demonstrate that the size of the gig economy has in fact exploded. A 2014 survey promoted by the Freelancers Union found that 34 percent of the entire workforce was engaged in the gig economy, and a widely reported paper by the economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger argued that all net employment growth from 2005-2015 happened in alternative work arrangements. But as Doug Henwood points out, groups like the Freelancers Union have an obvious material interest in pushing this narrative, and the Katz-Krueger study is marred by methodological limitations. Even if we think the BLS’s methods are too narrow, any real-world explosion in contingency and alternative work arrangements should have shown up at least partially in its data. But it did not.
If one wants an alternative to the BLS findings, the most reasonable option seems to be a 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that surveys a number of approaches to measuring the size and characteristics of the contingent workforce. But even here, the numbers undermine the conventional wisdom. Using broader measures than the BLS, the GAO estimates that what it calls the “core contingent” workforce—a category that includes temps, on-call workers, day laborers, etc.—comprises 7.9 percent of the total workforce. That’s larger than the BLS estimate, but it still represents a very small minority of the working population.
Other data pour even more cold water on the gig economy narrative. According to the BLS, the overall share of self-employed workers has declined since the mid-1990s, as has the percentage of workers holding more than one job. Median job tenure (the number of years with one’s current employer) has gone up from roughly 3.8 years to almost five, and the share of workers with ten or more years of tenure has gone from one quarter to roughly thirty percent. Even those famously mercurial Millennials aren’t job-hopping as much as the media would have you believe. According to Department of Labor data, workers aged 18-35 report longer job tenures than their predecessors in Generation X did at the same age.
Simply put, the gig economy is showing up everywhere but in the data. The vast majority of U.S. workers—somewhere in the ballpark of 90 percent or more—are still working in traditional forms of employment. The main problem with work today isn’t contingency, or any of the other fashionable narratives on offer. It’s the fact that the traditional jobs the vast majority of us still work in are terrible and getting worse all the time.
If the gig economy narrative is so wrong, then why does it persist?
It’s easy to see why employers and their acolytes in government and the media would promote it. As Henwood points out, the persistent emphasis on contingency “only makes workers feel more powerless than they are” and gives cover to political attacks on workers’ rights. Lawrence Mishel, the head of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, makes the very plausible suggestion that “a lot of this hype has been driven by the tech world believing that they are the center of the universe.”
So why does it gain a hearing on the left?
In our haste to condemn the injustices of capitalism, we are often predisposed to accept and promote the most alarming assessments of its development. The underlying assumption is that our potential audience is more likely to give us a hearing if we paint the most dire picture of the system possible, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate one. This is certainly an understandable impulse, but it runs the risk of reinforcing capitalist ideology and promoting demoralization instead of action.
There is also a certain preoccupation with novelty and marginality among today’s radicals, which often gets generalized into pronouncements on so-called “late capitalism.” This dovetails nicely with the sort of skepticism toward more traditional forms of labor organizing and political mobilization that often crops up among the recently radicalized. After all, if nobody is working a “normal” job anymore then why bother with such fusty notions as trade unions, collective bargaining, or the welfare state? Better to focus on the “precariat,” who have more radical potential than those co-opted and defanged trade unionists anyway.
But if the recent wave of public education strikes teach us anything, it’s that traditional workplaces—especially those that have retained some semblance of workplace organization—are still our main source of power against employers and the ruling class in general. They’ve made a major impact on both policy and popular consciousness, and underscore the burning need to rebuild a layer of socialist activists rooted in strategically situated workplaces and unions for the long term. If the UPS Teamsters follow through on their recent overwhelming strike vote, that lesson will only become more powerful.
Chris Maisano is member of the DSA National Political Committee, a contributing editor at Jacobin, and a union staffer in New York.