Unveiling the Shifting Landscape of the Gig Economy
The cover story of Social Selling News‘ August issue, authored by Stephanie Ramirez, shares key learnings from PayQuicker’s recently published report, The Future of Work: Insights into the 2023 Gig Economy Workforce.
In a comprehensive effort to unravel the intricate dynamics of the gig economy, a new survey sponsored by PayQuicker and the Ultimate Gig Research Project has been released, providing critical insights into the ever-changing world of gig workers in the United States. The research, based on surveys conducted in July 2020 and April 2023, forms an integral part of the extensive Ultimate Gig Research Project, dedicated to empirically assessing gig economy trends to enhance business strategies and inform public policy decisions.
The survey, titled “The Future of Work: Insights into the 2023 Gig Economy Workforce,” reveals that during the research period, the gig economy experienced exponential growth, outpacing the traditional economy by more than four times, with an accelerating number of individuals embracing gig work for its flexibility and freedom. The survey estimates the gig economy at more than $1 trillion annually in the United States. With an average annual growth rate of 16%-17%, it is projected to involve nearly 100 million gig workers by 2027.
As the survey documents, the gig workforce’s structure is adapting to accommodate new opportunities, and attempts to define an “average” gig worker prove fruitless due to their diverse motivations and demographics.
While previous research on the gig economy has predominantly focused on specific companies or “type of gig,” this study aims to understand gig workers as they define themselves. It addresses the lack of accurate information about gig workers’ behaviors, demographics, and motivations, providing valuable insights for business decision-makers and public policy officials.
Survey researchers Dr. Robert Peterson and John T. Fleming, author of Ultimate Gig: Flexibility, Freedom & Reward, both suggest that existing data on the gig economy lacked information on the full scope of the industry and what it constitutes, which is what propelled them to conduct this research and compile the survey. (Dr. Peterson is the John T. Stuart III Centennial Chair in Business Administration and a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin, while Fleming is a former executive at Avon and DSA Hall of Fame honoree.)
“Other than media coverage of the companies that were kind of darlings like Uber and Lyft, nobody seemed to have information about what the gig economy was as a whole,” Peterson says.
Fleming adds that while the big research firms such as Gartner, Mckinsey & Company and the Boston Consulting Group are all talking about the future of work, no one has really drilled it down like this survey does.
The study’s most recent round of empirical research, conducted in 2023, updates previous insights and sheds new light on the nature, scope, and growth of the gig economy and the workers who constitute its workforce. Particularly noteworthy is the analysis of individuals engaging in multiple gig activities, which offers key insights into this growing trend within the gig workforce.
The landscape of gig work in the United States has shown notable shifts, according to the findings from the 2023 survey.
The data indicates that approximately 40% of gig workers reported engaging in just one gig in the past 12 months, slightly down from the 45% recorded in 2020.
Meanwhile, 28% of gig workers reported working two gigs, and 32% reported juggling three or more gigs, combining a “primary gig” with one or more “secondary gigs.” These percentages have seen a slight increase from the figures in 2020, where 24% worked two gigs, and 31% worked three or more gigs.
According to the survey, this trend may suggest that gig workers have allocated less time and effort per individual gig or across multiple gigs in 2023 compared to the earlier year, raising questions that warrant further investigation.
Gig Workers Embrace New Activities
The gig economy witnessed substantial changes in the types of gig activities pursued by workers in 2023 compared to 2020, as revealed by the later survey.
Notably, certain gig activity concentrations experienced remarkable transformations during this period. In 2020, professional services, such as accounting, law, and consulting, held the top spot, with nearly 16% of gig workers engaged in this category.
However, in 2023, delivery services, encompassing restaurant meals, groceries, and errands, emerged as the most popular gig activity, with about 13% of all gig workers participating.
Furthermore, the percentage of gig workers offering home repair or other manual skill-based services more than doubled from almost 7% in 2020 to slightly more than 13% in 2023.
The data also showcases a trend among individuals working multiple gigs, indicating a preference for sticking to the same activity category in 2023 compared to 2020.
For instance, ride-sharing or transportation service gig workers were more likely to work for both Uber and Lyft in 2023, whereas in 2020, they might have combined driving for Uber with an entirely different gig, such as graphic design.
Overall, 34% of individuals with more than one gig in 2023 performed their gigs within the same activity category, marking a notable increase from the 27% recorded in 2020.
This shift was particularly evident among gig workers in home repair activities, with 55% of those with a primary home repair gig also engaging in a secondary gig within the same category. The evolving gig landscape highlights the adaptability and responsiveness of gig workers to changing demands and opportunities in the ever-growing gig economy.
In terms of how these findings affect the direct selling channel, Fleming says he feels that direct sellers will not have to look for people to make an either/or choice since gig workers are increasingly working more than one gig.
“The facts are, 60% of the people involved in the gig economy are working multiple gigs,” Fleming shares. “I happen to know some examples where gig workers thrive on working with a direct selling company. There’s a tremendous asset to our model — it’s called customer acquisition and retention, and being rewarded as sustaining consumers who stick with the brand.”
Shifts in Gig Work Earnings
Interestingly, despite the flexibility and part-time nature of gig work, according to the survey results, individuals entering the gig economy demonstrate realistic expectations regarding their potential earnings.
On average, nearly 23% of gig workers surveyed in 2023 expected to earn less than $100 per month when starting their gig, while another quarter anticipated earning between $100 and $299 per month. In contrast, only a mere 3% of gig workers had ambitious expectations of earning $4,000 or more per month from their gigs.
The survey data also reveals insights into the actual earnings of gig workers. Approximately 44% of gig workers reported earning less than $300 per month, suggesting that, in general, gig workers earned slightly more per month than their initial expectations. However, a closer examination shows that nearly 80% of gig workers who had initially expected to earn less than $100 per month from their gig did, in fact, earn less than $100 per month.
Overall, around two-thirds of the surveyed gig workers earned about what they initially expected when starting their gig. Surprisingly, this relationship varied based on the number of gigs worked.
While 65% of gig workers with only one gig earned what they expected, and 69% of those with a secondary gig met their earnings expectations, only 57% of those working two gigs earned what they had anticipated in their primary gig.
It’s also important to note that nearly 83% of gig workers surveyed stated it was very or somewhat important to be paid immediately for performance when looking for a new gig.
In terms of earnings, one observation from the findings that Peterson shares is how gig workers were using their earnings before the COVID-19 pandemic versus after.
“Pre-Covid, people were saving the money they made from their gigs,” Peterson says. “Post-Covid, people are making their gig earnings go to pay household bills. So is that a trend because of inflation, because of what we’re coming out of? If that continues, that’s a major change.”
Pandemic-Related Shifts in Gig Work
The gig economy experienced significant changes influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, as revealed in the survey results, with implications for gig workers’ behaviors and gig activities.
The survey highlights that in 2021, nearly 7.9 million Americans relocated to different states, while in 2022, a majority of individuals who had the option to work from home chose telework. These shifts in work behaviors and locations had far-reaching consequences on the gig economy.
Delivery service gigs, for instance, witnessed a surge during the pandemic. The increased demand for home delivery of groceries and restaurant meals prompted the need for gig workers to step up their delivery activities. Existing gig workers took on additional delivery roles, and new workers entered the gig economy to meet the rising delivery demand. As a result, the percentage of workers pursuing delivery gigs doubled from 2020 to 2023.
Moreover, the entry of new gig workers during and after the pandemic seemed to differ from their pre-COVID counterparts in certain aspects. In 2020, approximately one-quarter of gig workers engaged in professional services or freelance computer work, which often involves more than a part-time commitment and focuses on a single gig.
However, by 2023, the corresponding percentage decreased to about 12%, indicating a shift in the types of gig activities pursued in the post-pandemic gig economy.
These findings underscore how pandemic-induced changes have left a lasting impact on the gig economy, reshaping the behaviors and gig choices of workers.
Without getting into hypotheticals and regardless of the pandemic, Fleming proposes that the outcomes seem to indicate that more people are becoming comfortable with gig work and the simplicity of the many types of gig work.
“I do not think this is a fad,” Fleming adds. “I think this is part of the transformation and how we work now. I don’t care what profession I’m talking to now, it’s harder and harder to get people to rave about their 9-to-5. Now whether they’re working a 9-to-5 or not, they’re beginning to realize that they can leverage after-hours because there’s an opportunity to do so.”
The research presented in this survey provides a comprehensive and insightful glimpse into the ever-evolving gig economy and its associated workforce in the United States.
The gig economy’s exponential growth and the increasing number of individuals engaging in gig work demonstrate its significance in today’s job market. The gig workforce is dynamic, adapting to new gig opportunities, driven by the desire for flexibility, simplicity and autonomy.
The shift in the gig economy’s demographic composition is evident in the diminishing dominance of specific gig activity categories, such as platform-based ride-sharing gigs, which signals a broader and more diverse gig landscape. As the gig economy continues to evolve, businesses are compelled to embrace innovative approaches to remain competitive.
“As direct sellers consider positioning their value proposition in talking to the marketplace, company executives need to consider that people are attracted to simplicity,” Fleming says.
“People are working multiple gigs. Do we have to be the only gig or do we have to be better positioned to be at least a preferred gig? I think that the future is very bright. There’s nothing in this study that says that direct selling is on its last legs.”