Good Gigs: A fairer future for the UK’s gig economy
How platforms can become a catalyst for fair, fulfilling work in the modern labour market
There are now an estimated 1.1 million people in Britain’s gig economy, which is nearly as many workers as in the National Health Service (NHS) England. Over the last five years, the trend of using online platforms to source small, sometimes on-demand, jobs has accelerated, and shows little sign of slowing down. In the largest survey undertaken on Britain’s gig economy, the RSA found that young people (aged 16–30) are particularly attracted to the idea of gig work — one in four said they would consider some form of it in future. Given this enormous potential for growth of the gig economy, the RSA set out to envision how platforms can become a catalyst for fair, fulfilling work in the modern labour market.
How we as a society respond to the impact of gig work on the labour market is an early, and significant, test of how we will manage increasingly radical changes as a result of developments in technology, such as artificial intelligence and automation. The hope is that we can leverage technology for the benefit of workers.
This test has so far proven divisive as two competing views have emerged on how government should oversee new platforms that are beginning to fundamentally change the ways in which people work.
One view is that government should be actively encouraging innovation and supporting platforms to scale. Those who hold this view champion platforms as progressive and liberating, offering workers newfound freedom and flexibility. They argue that if government is too heavy-handed in its approach to platforms, it will diminish the opportunities created and close down a route into the labour market for some groups who may have otherwise struggled to participate.
The other view is that government should ensure that standards are maintained in the labour market, and thus be more vigilant when it comes to the practices of platforms using self-employed workers. There are concerns here about gig work being exploitative and triggering a race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions. Those who are anxious want platforms to be more fiercely regulated and held to account according to existing rules for incumbents. Some may prefer for platforms like Uber to be banned entirely as they have been in countries like Italy.
The tension between these views appears to be that some are optimistic that new platforms will transform our lives for the better while others are doubtful that such innovation will be inherently uplifting, particularly for workers. There is a legitimate question of who stands to gain most from innovation, although if it were stifled workers too would lose out. Proponents of platforms must realise that innovation cannot be enjoyed at the expense of workers, but equally, holding platforms back will not serve anyone’s best interests given their merits (ie convenience, flexibility, and resource efficiency).
The uncertainty over how gig workers will fare over time, however, is making people feel uneasy about whether they will still have a decent standard of living in the wake of ‘disruption’. With this in mind, an incoming government needs to grapple with the reality of what changes in work will mean for society, recognising that the bedrock of security for most people — nine-to-five employment — is gradually disappearing. Not only does traditional employment guarantee rights and protections in the labour market, but it is also an important source of public revenue, accounting for a greater share of taxes per capita than self-employment.
For those increasingly concerned that platforms are threatening our social and economic security, the starting point has been to challenge whether gig workers should be considered genuinely self-employed. There is an urgent need for government to clarify the law and deter misclassification of workers. However, classifying workers appropriately under the law is also limited in its potential to transform workers’ experiences of the labour market. The law will not guarantee that work is fair in other ways that matter; for example, the law cannot guarantee gig workers more power over decisions that affect them or a larger share of the value that they’ve created.
Given that platforms operate in diverse ways and not all exercise the same levels of control, it is unlikely that all gig workers have been misclassified. Thus, only some workers will stand to benefit from the rights and protections conferred by a different employment status. Taking into account the wider trend towards self-employment (which was well underway before gig work became prevalent), it also needs to be considered that more people are valuing a higher degree of flexibility than most employees have. This leads us to believe that traditional employment cannot be the basis of a secure foundation, but rather this should be built on a broader conception of good work for all, irrespective of employment status.
The RSA’s view is that government needs to be clearer about how technological innovation — in this case, platforms in the gig economy — can raise the quality and security of work over the long-term. This means that government should continue to support platforms in the UK, but can no longer remain agnostic about the different business models used by platforms. Platforms do have the potential to empower workers through enabling peer-to-peer exchange, but they make different choices about how to operate, including how they treat workers. Through rethinking its approach to regulation, government can positively influence these choices.
At the RSA, we advocate for government to adopt an approach of ‘shared regulation’, which will require government to work in a more collaborative way and appeal to a range of stakeholders to help establish key tenets and principles of good work in the gig economy. Government may take the lead in distinguishing what good work looks like, but businesses and civil society are crucial in making good work a reality. In truth, government needs platforms, civil society, investors, legislators, and workers themselves to ensure that gig work is actually aligned with its vision of good work. Ultimately, collaboration will enable government to shape the gig economy in a more strategic way than has been achieved so far by taking either a heavy-handed or light-touch approach to regulation.
We recommend that government collaborate on a ‘Charter for Good Work in the Gig Economy’, partnering with representative bodies, such as Sharing Economy UK (SEUK), and organisations with an expertise in this area, like ACAS. There could be an open call for contributions to capture a full range of perspectives. Just as the current government has already signalled that we value technological innovation, the new government now needs to demonstrate with this Charter that we value workers as well.
Beyond this, we recommend that the wider infrastructure of the gig economy should be developed, and sustainable business models encouraged, in part through addressing the systemic drivers of market conditions. Conditions in the gig economy are not created in a vacuum, and so more thought should be given to why businesses make the choices that they do and how new models of operating can be inspired by, for example, fostering alternatives to venture capital for financing entrepreneurship. Technological innovation doesn’t need to be feared if it is nurtured with more than profits in mind. Together we can transform the market, so that platforms facilitate good — and thus, fair and fulfilling — work that strikes the right balance between autonomy and security.
This report is kindly supported by Mangopay
The RSA’s recommendations
Our recommendations aim to:
1. Account for the pressing questions about employment status and concerns that misclassification may be eroding public finances as well as workers’ protections.
2. Begin building a new foundation of social and economic security that isn’t premised on traditional employment, but is based on good work for all.
3. Address systemic issues in the labour market, such as a lack of support for atypical workers and promising new business models.
To resolve issues of employment status, government should seek to clarify the law for both workers and businesses, as well as deter misclassification by giving workers more power to hold businesses to account under the law.
To provide more clarity, government should:
- Publish an official guide to aid workers and businesses in identifying different employment rights and related tax obligations.
- Specify that employment intermediaries can offer training and development opportunities, and to any category of worker.
- Consult with the public on any proposed changes to tax law, trialing deliberative methods.
To enable greater accountability to workers under the law:
- Strengthen penalties against companies using clauses in contracts that prohibit litigation over employment status. Moreover, give explicit protection to workers who litigate the matter.
- Suspend tribunal fees for workers challenging their employment status.
- Introduce a summary process for workers wishing to challenge employment status at a tribunal.
- Reverse the burden of proof, so that the onus is on companies to prove that their workers are not ‘workers’ or employees.
In response to the changing labour market, government must steer innovation with workers in mind, setting out its vision for good work in collaboration with business and civil society.
There is also a need to develop the wider infrastructure of the gig economy to better support workers, irrespective of their employment status, and to harness the potential of platforms through fostering a new generation of business models.
Government, businesses, and civil society should pursue the following:
1. Government should collaborate with platforms, civil society, and workers on a ‘Charter for Good Work in the Gig Economy’ to advance a vision of what good work is in the sector.
2. Government should invest in a dedicated service for gig workers, offering general advice and counsel about employment rights, or information and guidance on filing taxes for example.
3. The UK’s Financial Capability Board should expand its Strategy to include gig workers, strengthening financial savvy and security in a growing proportion of the workforce.
4. SEUK, on behalf of platforms, and a civil society organisation should establish ‘Independent Peer Review Hearings’ to ensure that gig workers have a fair appeals process and an opportunity to build community.
5. SEUK should work with platforms and relevant institutions to enhance training and development opportunities for gig workers, considering what progression would look like in the sector and creating a strategy to enable it.
6. Government should seed and support promising technology in the gig economy by ringfencing a proportion of its new R&D fund and introducing a ‘regulatory sandbox’ for experimentation with blockchain technology, WorkerTech, and other technology that could better the labour market in general.
7. Government and Co-ops UK should help nurture platform co-ops that explicitly embed a social purpose into their mission, and government should consider supporting their growth by creating a fund to provide long-term equity investment.
8. Government should modernise the Competition Act in the UK in light of Brexit, widening the remit to take into account the protection of workers’ interests alongside consumers’ interests.
Structure of the report
Section 1: The nature of Britain’s gig economy
The opening section of our report details the trend of gig work in Britain. We offer insight into the nature of Britain’s gig economy, based on the largest survey of gig workers to date. The results reveal how diverse the gig economy is and how experiences of gig work can differ, diverging along lines of age and gender. This will help readers understand why the current government has found it so complex to regulate the gig economy; it must negotiate the trade-offs for different workers and who stands to lose out most if government either abstains or intervenes.
We also consider the growth of the gig economy, accounting for whether this is just a fad or is likely to endure in future. We imagine the direction of travel the gig economy could go in depending on how a new government chooses to act.
Section 2: Gig work as ‘good work’
Our second section engages with the concerns being raised about whether gig work can provide the same level of social and economic security that traditional employment has. We provide an overview of the controversy over employment status as well as the implications for tax and welfare. Our view is that mediation is needed to help move this debate on, and thus government should take action to clarify the law and deter misclassification of workers. However, we argue that ultimately traditional employment cannot be the basis of a secure foundation, but rather this should be built on a broader conception of good work for all, irrespective of employment status. The incoming government thus has an important role in providing a steer for what good work is in the gig economy (as the current government recently attempted to set out what good corporate governance is), but it should do this in collaboration with a range of stakeholders, including platforms, civil society, and workers.
Section 3: The potential of peer-to-peer platforms
To strengthen our case for why a new government urgently needs to make its expectations of platforms clear in terms of providing good work, we help readers understand the potential of peer-to-peer platforms to transform the labour market — for better, or for worse. This section focuses on how different platform-based business models have the power to disrupt industry, but could also harness this power to better serve workers as well as consumers. The risk is that if platforms do not actively seek to empower workers, they could exacerbate inequality and further distort markets.
We hope that readers will recognise that the problem isn’t necessarily the gig economy, but how some platforms choose to operate.
Section 4: Transforming the labour market together
In our final section, we argue that more expansive change is needed in the market, so that workers can also reap more of the benefits of innovation; however, this cannot be achieved merely through legal reform or conventional approaches to regulation. We make the case for shared regulation, a collaborative approach to actively shaping the future of the gig economy.
In response to concerns that technology is threatening traditional employment, there is a need to demonstrate that this will not undermine the ability to lead a decent life. Government must bind together with platforms and civil society (such as trade associations and unions) in a mission to ensure that gig work is also good work.
By developing the wider infrastructure of the gig economy we can support gig workers in the immediate-term; however, we also need to address systemic problems of capital, culture, and market distortions to make a substantive impact for all workers over the long-term. As part of this, we encourage seeding and supporting a new wave of sustainable business models in the gig economy. Considering how much the workforce is likely to grow by, we should take the opportunity to shape the gig economy now while it is still in its infancy and malleable to change.
1. The nature of Britain’s gig economy
It’s likely that some reading this will have recently taken an Uber to get around the city, or ordered a curry through Deliveroo on a night in. There may also be readers who are more familiar with being behind the wheel, or on a bike balancing a takeaway while skilfully manoeuvring through traffic.
Growth of Britain’s ‘gig economy’ has been profound. In a mere five years, companies like Uber and Deliveroo, which enable transportation and delivery at the tap of a button, seem to be fundamentally changing our ways of working. These two companies in particular are in more than 75 towns and cities across the UK, while also expanding globally. Uber can be accessed in more than 500 cities around the world, while Deliveroo’s presence is strong across Europe. Both are acclaimed as ‘Unicorns’, which are start-ups valued at over a billion dollars; Uber’s worth has been pegged at as much as $62.5bn (£50bn).
When we refer to the ‘gig economy’, we are discussing the trend of using online platforms to find small jobs, sometimes completed immediately after request (essentially, on-demand). Much like an actor or musician goes from ‘gig to gig’, workers in the gig economy are sourcing one job at a time, but by logging into an app or clicking through to a website. Each ride an Uber driver accepts is a ‘gig’ or a single job, as is each booking a Hassle cleaner makes to tidy a flat or every errand run through TaskRabbit.
While online platforms for sourcing gigs (in the form of ‘crowdwork’) have existed for more than a decade, the trend has accelerated in the UK since 2012 as an aspect of the ‘sharing economy’. In the sharing economy, there are two kinds of platforms — asset-based platforms, and labour-based platforms. Asset-based platforms entail sharing an underused asset, such as a home, as hosts do on Airbnb. Labour-based platforms are premised on making the most of one’s skills or time, such as through driving for a few hours a week in addition to other commitments, such as another job, caring responsibilities, or creative pursuits.
We include all online platforms for sourcing gigs in our survey and analysis, but are particularly interested in the recent drivers of growth in the gig economy — the labour-based platforms of the sharing economy.
These platforms tend to consider gig workers to be self-employed, or ‘independent contractors’, citing the flexibility they have over choosing their own hours. The gig economy is thus sometimes conflated with the general trend towards self-employment or ‘independent work’. Estimates of these workers in the UK have thus ranged from six million to 14 million; however, even the more cautious estimates appear inflated because of the definitions or methodology used.
Considering that gig work has become increasingly controversial because the workers are classed as self-employed, rather than as employees of the platform, it’s important to clearly distinguish between gig workers and traditional freelancers. Platforms are perceived to be driving a shift from traditional employment to self-employment, and thus threatening what has long been the foundation of social and economic security for most workers. Some argue that platforms are misclassifying workers as self-employed, depriving them of rights and protections while still exercising control akin to employers. There are also concerns about how this affects public finances because the self-employed and the companies that contract them pay a lower rate of tax than employees and the businesses they work for.
As a starting point for thinking through any legal or political reform that might be needed, the RSA set out to learn more about the nature of Britain’s gig economy. In collaboration with Ipsos MORI, we undertook the largest survey on the gig economy in Britain. Nearly 8,000 people in the population over the age of 15 were surveyed face-to-face, meaning that they were interviewed in their homes, rather than online. This methodology gives us the truest indication of the gig economy’s size in terms of the workforce.
In our survey, we delved into questions about both the jobs and the workforce itself: what kind of work is being done and where, who the gig workers are, and how we can understand their working patterns, earnings, and motivations. To strengthen our insights, we’ve also included unique data shared with us by a range of platforms in the UK.
The results reveal how diverse the gig economy is and how experiences of gig work can differ, diverging along lines of age and gender. It puts the difficulties of regulation into perspective; since there is no universal experience within the gig economy, government must carefully weigh a number of trade-offs in deciding whether to intervene and, if so, in what way.
We also asked a representative sample of 1,918 respondents whether they would consider taking up gig work in future, giving us an idea of whether this trend is simply a fad or likely to become more significant over time. Contemplating different regulatory approaches, we imagine the direction of travel government could take the gig economy in and what the implications would be.
This section unfolds over three parts, detailing the key findings of our survey on Britain’s gig economy.
Part I: The current trend
Not only has the number of gig workers grown, but the sector itself has expanded to encompass different kinds of work in recent years. Work found online has typically been of a highly-skilled nature, taking the form of ‘crowdwork’ (jobs that are crowdsourced online and can be performed anywhere in the world). Increasingly, however, labour-based platforms of the sharing economy are generating jobs with lower barriers to entry and that tend to be carried out locally, such as work in personal services, driving, and delivery. Alongside this shift in the types of work being carried out, we have seen a change in the characteristics of the workforce.
In this section, we get a sense of what the gig economy looks like today, as well as gig workers’ working patterns, earnings, and motivations.
How large is the workforce?
According to our survey, we can estimate that there are currently 1.1 million gig workers in Great Britain. Around 3 percent of adults aged 15+ have tried gig work of some form, which equates to as many as 1.6 million adults in Great Britain.
For some, this may be a smaller proportion of Britain’s workforce than imagined, especially given higher estimates that have encompassed the general trend of independent work or freelancing, and users of asset-based platforms like HomeAway or LoveHomeSwap.
That said, over a million workers in a relatively new market that is continuing to grow is significant. This amounts to almost as many workers as are in the National Health Service (NHS) England (1.2 million).
What kind of services are being provided?
We grouped gig work into three main categories:
- Professional, creative or administrative services
- Skilled manual or personal services
- Driving and delivery services
Well over half (59 percent) are found in professional, creative, or administrative services. This was to be expected given that before the rise of the ‘sharing economy’, platforms had been established mainly for freelancers, such as copy editors or graphic designers,interested in finding consultancy opportunities. Over time, platforms have also provided opportunities to perform simpler tasks like clickwork or data entry. These types of jobs are sometimes referred to as ‘crowdwork’ because they’ve been crowdsourced online.
Similarly, it was anticipated that there would be a significant number of gig workers providing skilled manual services, such as plumbing, electrical maintenance, or carpentry. Workers in the skilled trades who are self-employed have long been sourcing jobs online through platforms such as MyBuilder and Rated People, both of which were founded circa 2005.
It may surprise some that gig workers providing driving and delivery services were found to be in the minority. This may be because of the high visibility of these workers on our roads in contrast with freelancers working from home, or for example, plumbers or electricians disappearing into other people’s homes to carry out their tasks. Yet, given that driving and delivery platforms were the most recent to be established in the UK, this too should tally with our expectations. This is still a substantial share of gig work given these platforms only emerged within the last five years.
A further breakdown of these main categories can be found below. Note that this shows us that some gig workers are providing more than one type of service.
Where are the gig workers based?
Current gig workers are more likely to be based in London than in the rest of Great Britain. This may be in part because platforms tend to launch in London given opportunities to scale in the capital. Most rely on establishing strong networks effects early on to grow.
In general, gig workers are more concentrated in London than other types of workers. 27 percent of gig workers are based in London compared to 17 percent of self-employed workers and 13 percent of employees.
What do we know about who the gig workers are?
The gig economy is predominantly male. Gig workers are more than twice as likely to be men (69 percent) than women (31 percent). In general, this mirrors the gender split in self-employment.
Women seem to be more likely to be found on asset-based platforms, trading in goods like clothing or toys, or renting out major assets like a spare room, and in these domains the gender split is more equal (UK Collaborative Economy Public Participation Survey, Nesta, 2014).
There are some segments in the gig economy where women are heavily concentrated, such as in cleaning (as the data from cleaning platform Hassle shows us below), but the number of cleaners, for example, is still a small fraction of the overall trend.
Women may be gravitating towards services in the gig economy that they tend to provide more generally in the labour market.
Gig workers mainly fall in the middle band of age groups; over half (52 percent) are between the ages of 31 to 54. However, workers in this age band also comprise a larger proportion of the UK’s workforce.
In general, the workforce is young — 86 percent are below the age of 55. Again, this may be because older people are more likely to exploit their assets than their labour when using online platforms.
When contrasted with the rest of the labour market, the gig economy is especially young. Gig workers are more likely to be between the ages of 16–30 (34 percent) than employees (26 percent) or other self-employed workers (11 percent). It would appear that gig work might be an entry point into self-employment for young people.
For example, data below from Deliveroo, a food delivery platform, shows that over 60 percent of couriers are 25 and under in age.
From the data, it would appear that most of Deliveroo’s couriers are young men between the ages of 16 to 25.
Gig workers tend to be highly skilled — as many as 44 percent have university degrees. This might reflect that there are platforms in the gig economy that require high levels of skills, such as Upwork or Talmix, but we should be mindful that there may also be issues of under-employment (ie workers performing tasks that they are overqualified for). For example, there may be recent graduates in gig work while trying to find a job in their field.
How frequent are the gigs?
The majority of gig workers work infrequently; as many as half do not work every month. Of the remainder, 14 percent work at least once or twice a month, 13 percent work once or twice a week, and 24 percent work regularly in a week. Of those working regularly, half work most days, and the other half reportedly work daily or just about.
Of all gig workers, the vast majority — 80 percent — work 16 hours or less, 12 percent work between 16–34 hours, and 8 percent work full-time, clocking in 35 or more hours per week. This equates to about 88,700 full-time gig workers.
The working patterns of gig workers could reflect the distribution among different kinds of services (above), the age of gig workers, or the extent to which they’re supplementing their income. For example, on platforms that primarily appeal to young people, like Deliveroo, for food delivery, or Staff Heroes, for temporary staffing, the average hours worked tend to be fewer than 16. The average hours worked per week for Staff Heroes specifically is 5.5 hours as the data shows below.
According to Staff Heroes, this average also reflects the large number of workers who use the platform to earn a secondary source of income and thus accept only one shift per week. ‘Heroes’ who only worked 0–5 hours per week account for 67 percent of their workers.
How dependent are gig workers on platforms?
The majority (62 percent) of gig workers are using platforms to supplement their existing income.
Of these gig workers, 37 percent are employed — 25 percent work full-time and 12 percent work part-time. Of the remaining 31 percent, 24 percent are in some form of self-employment and 7 percent are on a temporary contractor or in work of other means. There is some overlap between categories, as there are some gig workers who are also self-employed as well as in temporary work.
However, this also confirms that nearly 40 percent of gig workers are solely using platforms to source work.
Earnings seem to correspond with the findings that most gig workers are supplementing their income. 61 percent earn less than the taxable threshold/personal allowance of £11,500. Of all gig workers, roughly a third earn less than £4,500 from gig work. This is just the earnings from gig work and once other sources of income are taken into account, their total income might be considerably higher.
What are the motivations for undertaking gig work?
When gig workers were surveyed about their motivations, they were asked two questions. One was an unprompted question about why they were in gig work, meaning that the interviewer coded their answer to a hidden list. The gig workers could cite as many reasons as they wanted to, and their reasons were then grouped by Ipsos MORI.
Of the top three unprompted responses, the first two in the chart above could be understood as ‘pull factors’ — essentially, reasons that pulled, or attracted, workers into the gig economy.
- Over half (53 percent) reflected that they were drawn to gig work because they viewed the work positively, citing good conditions, such as greater flexibility (ie the ability to fit gig work around other commitments) or decent pay.
- Roughly a third specified that they had been looking to make extra money.
The third top response appears to be a ‘push factor’ — a reason that pushed, or forced, workers into the gig economy.
- About a quarter of gig workers reported not being able to find sufficient work elsewhere or through other means, suggesting difficulties with the labour market.
Our second question on motivations asked gig workers how likely they were to agree or disagree that gig work provided more freedom and control — a reason often cited by the media or platforms on behalf of gig workers.
Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of gig workers agreed that the work provided more freedom and control. However, we should be cautious about what this reflects about platforms. It does not necessarily mean that platforms are exemplary in terms of providing workers freedom and control, but that gig work does provide a degree of flexibility, and this is especially likely in relation to other forms of work in the labour market.
Part II: Insight into different experiences
There is no universal experience in the gig economy. In particular, the experiences of gig workers diverge along the lines of age and gender, reflecting where people are in their working lives, their degree of dependence on platforms, and their motivations.
In this section, we highlight the experiences of young people and women in the gig economy, providing more context and insight about their different journeys.
How do young people fare in the gig economy?
Over half a million (roughly 578,000) young people in Britain have tried some form of gig work. While most people in the gig economy are between 31–54 years in age, the appeal of gig work is growing among young people between 16–30 years old. When asked about whether they would consider gig work in future, young people were by far the most positive. Based on the response, the number of young people in the gig economy could grow to around 3.7 million.
In recent years, new platforms have emerged in the gig economy that have low barriers to entry, especially relative to more established platforms for professional services or skilled trades. These platforms specialise in low-skilled work, such as delivery or running errands, presenting opportunities that are more easily accessible to young people as they build up their skills and experience. In our survey, we found that young people (32 percent) were more than twice as likely as workers in the median age group (14 percent) to say that that they had worked in the gig economy because they could not find work elsewhere, suggesting that gig work plays an important role in helping young people break into the labour market.
Young people (65 percent) were also the most likely to agree that gig work affords them more freedom and control. This may be because of their relative experience in the labour market, for example, working under a zero-hour contract. The flexibility of a zero-hour contract tends to be more of an advantage for employers than workers, as employers ultimately have control over when workers come and go.
Young people are much more open to different possibilities in the gig economy, expressing interest in all forms of gig work, whereas people in the median age bracket are more inclined towards highly-skilled work in particular.
Just under half of young people in the gig economy appear to be topping up their existing income, whereas the other half are using platforms for their only source of work. This is in stark contrast to workers in the median age bracket, who in the main are using gig work to supplement other streams of income. However, in aggregate young people work fewer hours than 31–54 year olds in the gig economy, so it is likely that they are using gig work as a bridge to other forms of work, for example, while job hunting following graduation.
Of young people who are using platforms to find work, 15 percent say that they’ve specifically turned to gig work because it is flexible enough to fit around their academic commitments while in school. In contrast with zero-hour contracts, they have much more, if not complete, control over when they work, making gig work more ideal in terms of planning around deadlines and exams.
Given the type of work that young people are more likely to be found in, and the fact that they work fewer hours, it should be expected that most young people are making less than the taxable threshold. Nearly 40 percent are making far less than this threshold, earning less than £4,500 per year, which seems to suggest that they are taking up opportunities on a much more casual basis, either sporadically or temporarily. Given how little they make, it is likely that even young people who are using platforms as their only means of finding work are not dependent on gig work to make a living.
How do women fare in the gig economy?
Women are not as active as men in the gig economy. As we mentioned earlier, women are more likely to be found on asset-based platforms, engaging in activities such as homesharing (UK Collaborative Economy Public Participation Survey, Nesta, 2014). They are half as likely as men to have tried any form of gig work, and of those who have they were much more likely to stop than men were. Nearly 40 percent of those who did report trying gig work had given it up.
However, in all probability, women may develop a stronger presence in the gig economy over time. While only around 350,000 women are in the gig economy, we may see that rise to nearly 3.6 million given that 18 percent revealed they would consider gig work in future.
Women were much more specific about the type of gig work they would do. Whereas young people as a cohort were warm to all forms of gig work, women on the whole narrowed their span of consideration. The top services they said they would be willing to provide were administrative, professional or creative in nature, although personal services also warranted high interest.
Women also do not earn much in the gig economy, essentially on par with young people in terms of earnings from gig work. Nearly 75 percent of women (or roughly three in four) earned less than the taxable threshold. However, unlike young people, women are highly likely to have other forms of work; as many as 66 percent of female gig workers (or two out of three) are in other work. It is also uncommon for women to be working weekly — of those who work weekly, only 16 percent (or one in seven) are women. Again, this suggests that women have a much more casual relationship with the gig economy at present.
It’s possible that women may be under-represented because newer platforms tend to offer work that women are typically not drawn to in the wider labour market; for example, women are not very well represented in the taxi industry, so it should come as little surprise that not many work for Uber. : However, given that women are more likely to be in professional, creative and administrative services in the economy as a whole, we would expect platforms aimed at freelancers or ‘crowdworkers’ to be attracting more women.
Growth of the gig economy has so far been down to men.
Of those who are more likely to be reliant on platforms for their only source of work as well as working weekly, men comprise the majority at 74 percent in both cases.
Uber, one of the most popular on-demand labour platforms in the gig economy, is primarily used by men as the data below reveals.
Around 95 percent of Uber drivers are men, and on average many are working about 25 hours per week, which is higher than the average for most gig workers.
Part III: Future prospects
In an exercise of foresight, we consider the growth of the gig economy and whether the trend is likely to prevail.
Is the gig economy just a fad?
Given that the trend towards gig work is fairly new, some might assume that it will be fleeting. However, our findings reveal that this trend is likely to endure, especially when we consider this against the backdrop of the rise in self-employment.
To understand the significance of the trend towards gig work, it is helpful to consider overall trends in self-employment in the UK, bearing in mind that the two shouldn’t be conflated because gig work is only one specific form of self-employment.
Generally, we have seen an increase in the total number of self-employed. In the UK, 4.5 million (14 percent of workers) are now self-employed. Since 2008, the number of jobs has increased by just over two million, of which nearly a million (44 percent) are accounted for by self-employment. Of those in self-employment, 29 percent are specifically in part-time self-employment, which has grown by as much as 50 percent since 2008. The results of our survey indicate that patterns of gig work are most similar to patterns of part-time self-employment, both of which are on the rise.
While self-employment and gig work are not directly comparable given the diversity within self-employment (ie micro-entrepreneurs, freelancers), there does seem to be a parallel here in terms of valuing more freedom in work. Previous RSA research has found that the majority of self-employed people are content because they have more freedom to do the things that they want, and our survey with Ipsos MORI similarly found that over half of gig workers were positive about the greater degree of control and flexibility possible. However, some may have entered the gig economy because of fewer opportunities in traditional employment; full-time employment accounts for a relatively smaller share (31 percent) of the growth in employment.
The gig economy’s capacity to grow is immense, especially if as many people who are considering gig work in future actually turn to it for their next job. 18 percent of the working age population, or roughly 7.9 million people, would consider some form of gig work.
Of those, 26 percent of young people (between the ages of 16–30), or one in four, expressed interest in some form of gig work in future.
Of those who would consider gig work, a third (33 percent) are degree educated. We may see this number rise over time as platforms become more prevalent in highly-skilled fields. For example, in the past year, PwC, a professional services firm, launched Talent Exchange, a portal for sourcing consultancy gigs with the company. In general, freelancing platforms for the highly-skilled tend to have some of the bigger user-bases — Talmix, another high-end consultancy platform has over 25,000 workers, and PeoplePerHour reports 150,000 active on its platform.
While gig work may currently be concentrated in London, this may change over time. Given how rapidly newer platforms have expanded across the country, it should not be assumed that the gig economy is the domain of capitals and other big cities. Our survey shows us that more people are likely to consider some form of gig work in the north of England (22 percent) and in Scotland (21 percent) than they are in London (19 percent). Although the gig economy is young, it is already showing signs of being embedded across Britain’s labour market.
What direction could the gig economy go in?
In essence, the workforce of the gig economy could become considerably larger — there are millions of prospective gig workers — and government needs to think through what the implications of such growth would be for society and how to best manage it.
While platforms operate in diverse ways, and thus vary in their impact, there can be a tendency to take a binary approach to regulation. Governments have either tacitly supported platforms or created a hostile environment to limit their operations.
There is concern that if the incoming UK government perseveres in the position that all platforms are good for the economy, it will support these innovative new businesses at the expense of workers. Without any intervention to encourage more platforms to raise the quality and security of gig work, these workers may get locked in with few opportunities to progress and limited protections, especially relative to employees. There is a risk that gig workers may stagnate in low-paid jobs and struggle to make ends meet over time. Gig work could exacerbate a sense of precariousness in the labour market rather than offer a life line to more security.
However, if the new government were to follow precedents set in other European countries like Italy where platforms are deterred or banned altogether it would also be damaging. Gig workers could lose out on a form of flexible work and opportunities to boost their earnings. Our survey shows that one in four are in gig work because they could not find sufficient work by other means; over half cited better conditions in terms of flexible working and pay, and nearly two-thirds have been using gig work to supplement their income. In intervening heavily to manage risks, the government may wind up limiting prospects while the wider failures of the market to offer good work go unacknowledged.
The challenge for any new government is steering innovation in the interests of workers as well as businesses and consumers. In the next section, we set out government’s role in mediating the debate over employment status as well as in ensuring that gig work is also good work.