Over the past decade, particularly in the US, there has been considerable debate over whether the labor market trends we were seeing represented fundamental shifts in the economy or business-cycle responses to the Great Recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis and the long, slow recovery. In new studies, two of these trends—the skills gap and the gig economy—are reconsidered in light of new data, with researchers finding that phenomena they once thought were secular may actually have just been products of the recession after all.
Economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz made headlines in 2016 when they released the results of a survey they had conducted the year before, which found a major jump in the number of Americans making a living in “alternative work” arrangements (i.e., not in regular, full-time employment), though gig economy platforms like Uber made up a small fraction of this contingent labor market. At the time, Krueger and Katz found that around 16 percent of the American workforce were engaged in this type of work, compared to 10 percent in 2005. Follow-up work indicated that alternative work accounted for almost all of the jobs created since 2005.
Now, the leading economists of the gig economy say their initial study overestimated its impact, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. In a new paper, Krueger and Katz look at new evidence and conclude that their 2015 survey overstated the size of the contingent workforce because of a weak labor market and the impact of the recession. Many of the alternative jobs they counted were stopgap jobs people took to make ends meet while they were unable to find full-time work. Once the economy and their job prospects improved, these gig workers returned to more traditional employment. The vast difference in the health of the US economy between 2005 and 2015 skewed the data.
Accordingly, the economists now revise their estimate of the growth of alternative work during that period to a 1 or 2 percentage-point increase, not 5. This brings their findings more in line with other recent studies that have painted more modest pictures of the gig economy—including the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement survey, which claimed the alternative workforce had actually shrunk since the last time the survey was conducted in 2005. At the same time, Krueger and Katz argue in their new paper that the surveys used to measure alternative work arrangements, including those conducted by the Labor Department, are seriously flawed (the huge gap in the BLS data due to the dozen years when the survey wasn’t conducted is part of the problem).