Has the gig economy doubled in size in three years?

Published: 16th Jul 2019

In brief

Claim

The UK’s gig economy workforce has doubled since 2016.

Conclusion

Correct, although there is no fixed definition of the gig economy. This is looking at “platform work”—jobs that are found via a website or app and accessed using a laptop, smartphone or other internet-connected device.

 

The rise in “platform work” shows that UK workers are increasingly likely to patch together a living from multiple different sources.

 

There isn’t enough evidence to say this.

Claim 1 of 2

“UK’s gig economy workforce has doubled since 2016… 

““Platform work” is used to supplement other forms of income, reflecting that UK workers are increasingly likely to patch together a living from multiple different sources.”

Trades Union Congress, 28 June 2019

In a recent report, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) stated that the size of the “gig economy” in the UK has doubled since 2016 (a headline that was then picked up by the Guardian and HuffPost and was also cited by BBC News). The TUC claimed that this showed that UK workers are increasingly likely to patch together a living from multiple different sources.

The first claim is fair, based on one common measure of the gig economy. But there’s not enough evidence to make the second claim.

On the claim that the gig economy has doubled, the TUC found that the number of people reporting that they did “platform work” at least once a week in the UK has doubled since 2016. There is no formal definition of the gig economy, but the number of “platform workers”—people who find jobs via a website or app—is one common measure. 

On the second point, the TUC points to the fact that, for most platform workers, platform work makes up less than half of their income. It says this shows that UK workers are increasingly getting income from multiple different sources.

But there is not enough evidence to make this claim. The TUC found the number of people working through platforms had increased. It didn’t look at whether or not platform workers had multiple sources of income before they took up platform work. It also didn’t measure the change in the number of people with multiple income sources who don’t work via platforms.

What did the TUC find?

The TUC used analysis by the University of Hertfordshire of two Ipsos MORI polls, conducted in 2016 and 2019, finding that the proportion of adults aged 16 to 75 claiming to do platform work at least once a week more than doubled in three years, from 4.7% to 9.6%. 

That works out at around 4.7 million people in 2019. As the survey data from 2019 isn’t yet ready to be published, we haven’t been able do check if the questions were worded in the same way in both surveys.

On the back of this finding, the TUC published the headline: “UK’s gig economy workforce has doubled since 2016”.

It’s fair to use platform work as a proxy for the “gig economy", but it’s also important to clarify that the gig economy has no fixed definition.

The BBC quotes a definition of the gig economy as "a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs". This is a broader definition—effectively all short-term jobs.

“Platform workers” are a narrower group—only including people who used an internet-enabled device to find work.

Platform work is more than Uber

The rise in the number of people doing platform work doesn’t necessarily mean that they have all taken up a new line of work. Some of this rise in the number of platform workers could simply be down to the fact that, as technology changes, more apps and platforms are available for workers to use.

To illustrate this, it helps to understand the type of work platform workers most typically do. While apps like Uber and Deliveroo may be among the best-known examples of such platforms, the kind of jobs platform workers do are quite varied. 

Among those who do platform work at least once a week, the most common type of job is office work, short tasks or ‘click work’ done by someone on their own computer (39% of platform workers). That’s followed by online work such as design, editing, software development or translation (28%), regular scheduled work in other people’s homes, such as cleaning, gardening and babysitting (26%), and professional work such as legal services and accounting (26%). 

All of the job categories existed before platforms. So while more people are choosing to do this via apps and platforms, the report doesn’t tell us much about whether the work these people are doing day-to-day has actually changed. 

As the researchers say, “many of the tasks now carried out by platform workers are not new in themselves but have been carried out in the past by casually-employed or self-employed people”. They add that further research is needed to find out “to what extent these survey findings represent new developments related to digitalisation and the development of online platforms”.

We don’t know if workers are increasingly patching together income from different sources

The TUC says: ““Platform work” is used to supplement other forms of income.” 

That’s correct. The TUC points out that only 9.4% of all platform workers (around 600,000 people) say platform work is their only source of income, and that 71.5% say platform work makes up less than half of their income (both of these figures exclude the 25% of respondents who don’t know or wouldn’t say).

The TUC goes on to say that this “reflect[s] that UK workers are increasingly likely to patch together a living from multiple different sources”. 

The word “increasingly” makes one big un-evidenced assumption—that new platform workers were not previously receiving income from multiple sources. The TUC’s report does not include any evidence about how many sources of income platform workers had before they took up platform work. 

For example, the fact that a cleaner or translator may have decided between 2016 and 2019 to source some of their work through an app does not mean that they find themselves newly trying to “patch together a living from multiple sources.”

The rise in platform work could simply reflect the fact that workers who already had multiple sources of income are increasingly going online to find some of that work, as technology changes.

Of course, we can’t know this for sure. But neither can the TUC. We don’t know whether platform workers had multiple sources of income before they took up a platform. Nor do we know what kind of non-platform work they do.

Platform workers are not the only people who might have more than one income

Another issue is that platform workers are not the only people we need to consider when measuring income sources among “UK workers” as a whole. 

Put simply: you can do no platform work at all, and still have multiple sources of income. But these workers wouldn’t be captured by the TUC’s data because they’re not platform workers.

The TUC’s data covers an estimated 5 million people who do platform work weekly, but there are almost 33 million people in employment overall.

Elsewhere in the press release, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady stated that the explosion in the gig economy reflected how "huge numbers are being forced to take on casual and insecure platform work – often on top of other jobs.” Wider evidence doesn’t seem to support the idea that more people are taking on second jobs: as of February-April 2019, there were just over 1.1 million workers with a second job in the UK—which is almost exactly the same number as three years ago. 

As a percentage of all people in employment, the level of people with second jobs has fallen in recent years, to 3%. 

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