Pew – Digital Commerce Platforms Help and Exploit Workers

Nearly one-quarter (24%) of Americans have recently used digital commerce platforms to earn money by taking on tasks or “gigs”, by selling their possessions or creations, or by renting their property on a short-term basis to others, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

About 24% of Americans earned money from the digital platform economy in the past year as gig work is blurring the lines between formal and casual labor, “jobs” and hobbies. The survey of more than 4,500 U.S. adults finds that nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) have earned money in the last year by using digital commerce platforms to find paid jobs or gigs, which might include tasks like driving for a ride-hailing app or performing deliveries.

Nearly one-in-five (18%) have earned money in the last year by selling something online, and 1% have earned money renting out their property on a home-sharing site. Everything told, some 24% of Americans have engaged in at least one of these activities in the last year.

Key Findings

Participants in the “gig economy” engage in a wide range of tasks, express a diversity of motivations, and rely on the income they earn to widely varying degrees. The 8% of Americans who have earned money via digital task platforms perform many different types of jobs. Often, the tasks they engage in do not require them to leave their computers:

  • 5% of Americans have used these platforms to seek out tasks that are performed entirely online, such as taking surveys or doing data entry.
  • 2% have earned money in the last year by driving for ride-hailing services.
  • 1% each have earned money by shopping for or delivering household items, or by cleaning or doing laundry for someone.
  • 2% have used these platforms to engage in various other types of work, ranging from relatively simple physical tasks to complex and highly technical white-collar employment.

The use of these gig work platforms is especially common among younger adults:

  • 16% of 18- to-29 year olds have earned money from one of these platforms in the last year. It is also more common among blacks (14%) and Latinos (11%) than among whites (5%).
  • These gig workers also hail from a wide range of employment backgrounds. For instance, 23% of those who utilize digital employment platforms are currently enrolled as students.
  • A majority describe themselves as being employed either full (44%) or part time (24%), but 32% say they are not currently employed.

These workers express a wide range of motivations for their use of digital gig work platforms.

  • Many are motivated by financial considerations, but others are simply looking for something to pass the time.
  • 42% say they are looking to have fun or for something to fill their spare time, while a comparable share (37%) says that they use these platforms to help fill gaps or fluctuations in their other sources of income.
  • 30% say they do this type of work because they need to be able to control their own schedule due to school, child care or other obligations.
  • 20% say that they use these services because other job opportunities in their area are limited, while 19% do so because they are looking to gain work experience that they can use in other jobs in the future.

Gig workers rely on the income they earn to widely differing degrees.

  • More than half of platform workers describe the income they earn as being either essential to meeting their basic needs (29%) or as an important component of their overall budget (27%) – but 42% indicate that while the income they earn is nice to have, they could get by comfortably without it.

 Workers who describe their gig work income as “essential” or “important” are more likely to come from low-income households, to be non-white and to have not attended college.

  • Compared with those who are less reliant on their gig work income, this group is less likely to perform online tasks for pay – but more likely to gravitate towards physical tasks such as ride-hailing or cleaning and laundry.
  • They are also significantly more likely to say that they are motivated to do this sort of work because they need to be able to control their own schedule or because there are not many other jobs available to them where they live.

“These findings highlight the great diversity of experiences within the gig economy, and illustrate the extent to which these services are blurring the boundaries between formal and informal employment,” said Aaron Smith, the lead author and associate director of research at Pew Research Center. “A slight majority of these workers rely heavily on the income they earn from these platforms, and use them for largely financial reasons. But a substantial minority views this work much more as a hobby – or simply a way to pass the time – as opposed to a true ‘job’ or a dedicated source of income.”

Public has mixed attitudes towards gig jobs.

  •  On one hand, most Americans feel that these jobs are good options for people who want a flexible work schedule (68%) or for older adults who don’t want to work full time any more (54%).
  • At the same time, around one-in-five Americans feel that these jobs place too much financial burden on workers (21%) and let companies take advantage of workers (23%). And just 16% of Americans feel that this type of work offers jobs that people can build careers out of.

Nearly one-in-five Americans have sold something online in the last year, but just 1% have earned money from a home-sharing site.

  • Nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have earned money in the last year by selling something online. The largest share of online sellers use digital platforms to sell their own used or second-hand goods (14% of Americans have done this in the last year), but smaller shares use these sites to sell everything from handmade items (2%) to consumer goods (2%).
  • Online selling is more prevalent among those who have graduated college (24% of whom are online sellers) than among those who have only attended high school (12%); more common among whites (20%) than among blacks (11%); and more common among those with relatively high household incomes than among those with lower incomes. Online selling is also popular among a relatively wide range of age groups.

A substantial majority of online sellers (80%) say that the income they earn is not particularly crucial to them, but 20% say that the income they earn is either essential or very important to their overall financial situation.

  • These financially reliant sellers tend to be older (nearly one-third are 50- to 64-years-old); are less likely to have attended college (37% have high school degrees or less); and to have relatively low incomes (52% say their household incomes are less than $30,000 per year).
  • Additionally, 55% have some sort of chronic health condition (55%), and 33% have a disability that prevents them from fully engaging in common everyday activities.

Just 1% of U.S. adults have earned money in the last year by renting out their own homes or properties on a home-sharing site (even though roughly one-in-ten Americans have used one of these sites to stay in someone’s home).

Data in this report are drawn primarily from the July wave of the American Trends Panel. The panel, created by Pew Research Center, is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults living in households. They survey was conducted July 12-Aug. 8, 2016, among 4,579 respondents (4,165 by web and 414 by mail). The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 4,579 respondents is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Read the report: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/17/gig-work-online-selling-and-home-sharing/

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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