According to a new Pew Research Center study, the number of Americans who identify themselves as self-employed is on the decline. But isn’t everybody saying goodbye to their day jobs and just putting their houses on Airbnb and driving for Lyft or Uber? Experts call it the “gig economy.” More people might be doing it, but it’s hard to track down those numbers.
Pew used the latest U.S. Census numbers for the study, and it’s not that the data is wrong, it's just incomplete. Or maybe the census isn’t asking the right questions.
"Since it’s a self-identification, some may say they are self-employed, some may say not," said Rakesh Kochhar, who wrote the Pew study. "So, how you identify yourself would probably require an additional set of questions.”
“The current population survey is trying to pick up what is your main job and then it will also pick up a second job," she said. "So, to the degree that people are picking up side jobs, they may well not report that.”
One of the problems is this survey doesn’t pick up people who are self-employed and have incorporated as a one-person business. What it asks is, “are you an unincorporated self-employed person?”
Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University, said there are also people who are working side jobs.
“People who are working part time on things, in their minds, they might not consider it a job," he said.
To Houseman, it seems the number of people working gigs to piece together an income is probably growing, there just isn’t enough current data to make that claim scientific.
“A big part of the problem is just funding for statistical agencies to keep up with new trends in employment and business practices,” she said.
If subsequent data shows the gig economy is, indeed, growing, the government may have to rethink the social safety net and benefits, like how to get health insurance and qualify for workers compensation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last names of Rakesh Kochhar and Susan Houseman, and misidentified the W.E. Upjohn Institute. The text has been corrected.