Last year, The Workers Lab and the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, alongside our partners at the Center for Cultural Innovation, launched the Gig Worker Learning Project - an effort to undertake a deep dive on “gig work,” including what we mean by it, what we know about it, and about the experiences of the workers who are engaging in it.
Before jumping into new research and giving workers the steering wheel, we compiled and analyzed existing research on gig and non-standard work to better understand where there are gaps, consensus, disagreement, and opportunities to learn more. Since the project launched, we have convened dozens of worker leaders and researchers to learn from their experiences, and analyzed more than 75 recent studies about gig and non-standard work and workers.
Up to this point, our work has revealed that across the body of research, there are no comprehensive and consistent findings about gig workers because different researchers use varied language, terms, and definitions that are sometimes different from what workers use, leading to confusion and contradictory findings. We’ve also learned that current data collection methods tend to overlook hard-to-reach workers, including those with multiple and short-term jobs, those working informally, and those without reliable phone and internet access. As a result, research doesn’t accurately reflect the full diversity of workers or the challenges they’re facing.
Following completion of the first phase of work which looked at past research, we wanted to hear directly from workers about their challenges, desires, and how they think about the work they are doing. So far, we’ve hosted a dozen focus groups with rideshare drivers, bicycle delivery workers, creatives and artists, sex workers, caregivers, farmworkers, and more. For the most part, focus group participants lack the rights, protections, and benefits afforded to workers in a standard employment relationship.
Emerging Themes from Worker-Informed Conversations
Throughout the discussions we’ve had, a handful of key themes are emerging as pressing concerns and challenges for many gig workers. These themes have risen repeatedly in our conversations, and workers across sectors, geographies, and demographics shared similar frustrations around lack of financial stability, inability to find and connect with other workers, and wanting more agency and flexibility in their working relationships.
Financial Instability and Inadequacy
Many workers described not earning enough, dealing with high expenses, and having fluctuations in both income and expenses. For many workers, there are two, related challenges: they don’t earn enough while working and work is unreliable, which precludes planning. Many also spoke of the amount of time it took to find work as a financial challenge. One person summarized this frustration saying, “Getting the work is part of my work.” We're seeing that instability is caused both by the structure of work (like not knowing when jobs will be available or having seasonal variation in the work) and external factors that the job fails to account for (like weather, traffic, public transport).
Struggles Connecting with Other Workers
An unmet desire for solidarity and connecting with other workers has been another prevailing theme. Overall, focus group participants had a hard time identifying themselves as part of a group of workers, even when recruited through an established organization. Many expressed a sense of isolation in their work, feeling alone, and not always recognizing their challenges as part of a shared experience. Some spoke about wanting to connect with people doing similar work or approach their work similarly (i.e., other people who hustle, other people aspiring to own a business), or who face similar challenges (e.g., balancing work and caregiving, accessibility needs, etc.). And others described how the structure of work itself prevents them from building relationships.
Lack of Agency and Flexibility
Many workers also talked about their need to have agency over their schedules, frequently to care for others or their own needs. They saw that need as incompatible with most traditional employment, often based on prior experiences. They saw their reliance on gig/non-standard work to come from necessity, despite its low pay and other challenges. Many participants also described their work as more accessible than more traditional employment, including that it was available regardless of their record background or immigration status, and that it allowed people to develop their own accommodations, including scheduling, to deal with disabilities.
These themes were not universal to everyone we spoke to, but they predominated our conversations in a way that led us to believe these challenges are common across the gig economy. While the Gig Worker Learning Project doesn’t have comprehensive answers about these topics yet, we’re committed to continuing to engage these workers in an exploration of terminology and solutions.
Our next steps include continuing to convene focus groups, re-engaging workers in participatory analysis, and developing a national, worker-centered survey which we look forward to updating on soon. Meanwhile, if you're interested in learning more about this topic and what it will take to make gig work better for workers, please consider reading our recent op-ed in Fast Company.
Adrian Haro and Shelly Steward