Delving into On-Demand Worker Trends: Q&A with Emergent Research’s Steve King

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This is Part 2 in a two-part series on a new study of on-demand workers. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Gig workers are overall pretty happy with their form of work, according to new research. Intuit and Emergent Research recently released findings from their two-year study of 6,247 on-demand workers, which looked at their reasons for pursuing gig work and their level of satisfaction. I interviewed Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, to get more insight into the research findings. 

Spend Matters: Intuit and Emergent Research began this study back in 2015. Did the researchers have any particular hypotheses going in?

Steve King: Our main research hypothesis was that on-demand platforms and talent marketplaces created highly flexible, low-friction work opportunities that would appeal to those looking for part-time and/or supplemental work but were constrained by their schedules or other obligations.

Our secondary hypothesis was people are using these platforms and marketplaces to help them create multiple streams of income. We’ve long observed that a growing number of Americans are supplementing traditional full and part-time jobs with other income sources. We’ve also observed that more people are cobbling together multiple part-time sources of income in lieu of a traditional job.

SM: A total of 6,247 on-demand workers took part in this study. How did you find and select the pool of respondents?

SK: We chose 12 on-demand economy companies that represented a broad cross section of the entire on-demand industry. We then used company lists to survey each company’s active independent workers. Securing this type of partnership with a dozen different companies wasn’t easy, and we chose this rather complicated methodology because a traditional top-down survey wouldn’t work. This is because there are relatively few on-demand economy workers.

Our current estimate is there are about 3.9 million [on-demand workers]. This is only about 1.6% of working-age Americans. Doing a statistically meaningful survey would require a very large and very expensive national sample of roughly 50,000 respondents.

By taking our approach we ensure all the respondents are active participants in the on-demand economy, and we also get a sample that represents the entire industry.

SM: Were there any surprising findings?

SK: Probably the most surprising research finding was the extent to which people are using on-demand to help them weather a financial hardship or shock. Four out of 10 of surveyed on-demand economy providers reported that a financial hardship such as job loss, medical problem or unexpected major expense had affected them in the prior year, compared to just 18% for the American public.

It’s a way to quickly generate income, with no job interviews, schedules or bosses. This ease of entry and flexibility is crucial when you need quick cash to cover an unexpected bill.

The other surprising finding was the extent people are using their on-demand economy work to provide income while they start a new business or use the on-demand economy to help them in their business. More than a third of the respondents run a business with or without employees, in addition to their on-demand economy work, and 21% are hoping to start a business. These people are using the on-demand economy to find new customers and/or generate income while building a business.

SM: I admit I was surprised to see such a high rate of satisfaction with on-demand work. Two-thirds of the respondents said that they’re satisfied or highly satisfied.

SK: One of the great myths of self-employment and independent work is the people doing it aren’t satisfied. Just the opposite is true. Pretty much every study of the self-employed shows they are more satisfied with their work situation than traditional employees.

The reason satisfaction is so high is these workers are their own bosses and have a great deal of work autonomy, control and flexibility. They view these as outweighing the downsides of less security and income that is less predictable.

SM: But what about general job stability or employer-based benefits such as health insurance?

SK: People who choose to work in the on-demand economy are much more likely to be satisfied than those who didn’t choose it but are working in the on-demand economy because they cannot find a traditional job.

Also, people more comfortable with risk are more likely to be satisfied with on-demand economy work, or self-employment more generally. We’ve done several studies on this topic and have found about 40% of Americans have this type of risk profiles. About 60% of Americans do not have good risk profiles for self-employment. This is a big issue because the workforce is shifting towards independent work.

SM: Have you noticed any generational or other demographic differences in responses? Are men or women more likely to champion gig work? What about people with full-time jobs versus those without?

SK: Millennials and baby boomers tend to be most comfortable with this work. This is because they are at a life stage where job security is less important. People with full-time jobs tend to work in the on-demand economy for one of three reasons: to supplement their income; to pursue a passion or be their own boss; and to learn a new skill.

Men and women work in the on-demand economy for similar reasons, but women are more likely to be working in the on-demand economy due to its flexibility and/or to pursue a passion. Men are more likely to be doing it to be their own boss.

SM: Which demographic segments do you think will see the biggest increase in on-demand work?

SK: We expect increases from both aging baby boomers and millennials. Most boomers are planning on working longer than past generations. In many cases this is because they want to stay engaged and active, and in other cases it is due to financial need. The on-demand economy provides the flexibility they prize and gets around the age discrimination they face in traditional labor markets.

Millennials also prize flexibility. They also like to pursue work that fits with their values and passions. Both generations also have less need for the security and predictable income traditional work provides than those who are middle aged.

SM: Another surprise from the report was how well-educated the on-demand workforce was. Almost two-thirds hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher, which is double the rate for the general American public.

SK: Another myth about the on-demand economy is that everyone doing it is an Uber driver. The reality is many of the on-demand economy marketplaces cater to college-educated workers and even those with advanced degrees. Computer programmers, creative professionals, lawyers, doctors, consultants, architects and professionals of all kinds find work via on-demand platforms. Even Uber and Lyft drivers are better educated than the average American. This is because even highly educated people need a source of highly flexible, low-friction, part-time work.

SM: So what are some of the more common jobs that full-time workers in this study hold? And what are the most popular gigs?

SK: The range of full and part-time traditional jobs held by on-demand economy workers is quite wide, everything from manual laborers to lawyers, doctors and engineers. People from pretty much any job you can think are also working in the on-demand economy.

The most popular single job category is driver. In terms of a broader category, creative professionals such as writers, designers and photographers are one of the largest. And one large category that is often overlooked is field service technicians.

SM: The number of on-demand workers is forecast to increase to roughly 9.2 million in 2021. Will that number continue to grow?

SK: The number will keep growing, but the growth rate will fall. Employment in general is shifting towards contingent work, which means more people will work independently. There are no signs of this turning around.

More and more self-employed professionals and micro-businesses are turning to the on-demand economy to find new customers. Firms large and small are also turning to the on-demand economy in greater numbers to find workers.

The growth rate will fall because of the size of the on-demand economy. Physics dictates that the bigger something gets, the slower it grows.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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