Fact sheet

Comparing definitions of independent work

12 Jan 2017

Every day there’s a new story about the rise of on-demand platforms, freelancers, precarious workers, and the “gig economy.” But what do these terms really mean? How is work actually changing? Are we destined to become a nation of “gig workers,” or, as some headlines indicated after the release of the last BLS Contingent Worker Supplement, are the stories all hype?

Many data sources suggest the nature of work is indeed changing, with workers increasingly engaging in short-term and project-based work outside of, in or addition to, full-time, long-term employer-employee relationships. Workers in these alternative arrangements face unique challenges. They experience high levels of income volatility and have less access to work-related benefits. Many businesses have turned to alternative work arrangements, including subcontracted companies and independent contracting, for labor outside of their core competencies. These arrangements allow firms to rapidly adapt to market pressures and can maximize short-term returns. These arrangements, and the workers who hold them, are central components in a changing economy.

But different sources – including those from government, academia, and the private sector – ask different questions and apply different definitions of independent work. These discrepancies make it difficult to understand trends and identify solutions to the challenges presented by independent work.

Researchers need to engage with and build off of one another’s work. Journalists need to write about what we know and don’t know accurately and with proper context. Policymakers need to make informed decisions about a variety of domestic policy areas that relate to the independent workforce – including health care, the tax code, social insurance programs, workforce training, and worker protections. And the general public needs to understand what’s going on in this sector of the economy as they develop their opinions about what types of policies they support in this area. The Gig Economy Data Hub is a collaborative project between the Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative and Cornell University's ILR School that aims to provide accessible, comprehensive information for anyone interested in better understanding the scope and nature of independent and gig work today.

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