From neighborhood handymen to freelance computer programmers, Americans have long taken on piecemeal work in lieu of (or in addition to) traditional salaried employment. But today a variety of apps and online platforms are making it easier than ever for people to connect with customers who might like to hire them to do any number of jobs–from performing various types of online tasks to driving for ride-hailing services or cleaning someone’s home. These platforms also allow users to earn money in a range of other ways, such as sharing their possessions with others or selling their used goods or personal creations.
Proponents of these digital earning platforms argue that they offer important benefits, such as the freedom and flexibility to work at a time and place of one’s choosing or the ability to turn a hobby or pastime into a source of income. But others worry that this emerging “gig economy” represents a troubling shift in which workers face increased financial instability and are required to shoulder more of the burden for ensuring their own pay and benefits.
Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults finds that a relatively substantial share of the public has earned money recently from a digital commerce platform. In the context of gig employment, nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) have earned money in the last year using digital platforms to take on a job or task.
Meanwhile, nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have earned money in the last year by selling something online, while 1% have rented out their properties on a home-sharing site. Adding up everyone who has performed at least one of these three activities, some 24% of American adults have earned money in the “platform economy” over the last year.
Beyond these overall figures, the survey also illustrates the wide variety of experiences among providers in the platform economy. At one end of the spectrum are casual users who perform mostly online tasks in their spare time. These users tend to take on these jobs for modest amounts of money. In fact, many describe their main motivation as simply passing the time and say the actual income they earn is not particularly essential to them.
At the other end are dedicated users who rely on the income they earn from these digital platforms to a much greater extent; who are more likely to gravitate towards physical tasks; and whose usage of these platforms is motivated largely by financial considerations or the need to find work that can fit around the other demands on their time, such as schooling or child care.