Politicians, academics, and the media have been absorbed in an argument about whether the gig economy is really something new and important, or how large the gig economy is. The Department of Labor has not conducted its Contingent Workers Survey since 2005, and thus has not yet been able to capture the rise of the gig economy in its count (although it expects to resume this survey in 2017). Some estimates of nontraditional work put levels as low as 8 percent of the workforce (4 percent as self-employed independent contractors, and another 4 percent as temporary workers), while others put the percentage of people doing at least some freelance work as high as 34 percent of the workforce. Economists Larry Katz and Alan Krueger recently found that the percentage of workers in alternative work arrangements (temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers) had increased from 10.1 percent of the workforce in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015, with online platforms like Uber still only 0.5 percent of the 2015 workforce. Debates over the numbers are important; better data makes for better social policy. But we do not need to answer all questions about the scope or importance of the gig economy to know that we need to make the safety net work better for those of us living in the patchwork economy. Designed for the workplaces and families of the 1950s, today’s safety net does not reflect the realities of life, work, and family in the twenty-first century.
This report will outline the range of ways that the safety net could be improved for people in the patchwork economy, with an eye toward identifying some of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches—how they could fit together, affect each other, or preempt each other. The discussion here is intended to serve as an introduction to the issues and policy options surrounding the patchwork economy, and the need for a new social contract. Much work remains on each of these questions, but the choices we make over the next few years may shape the terms of work and family life for decades to come.