Companies that use digital platforms to connect workers, customers and businesses have reshaped broad segments of the U.S. economy and have changed how millions of people earn a living. DoorDash says it has more than 1 million “Dashers” delivering meals to over 20 million customers. And Uber claims to operate in roughly 10,000 cities around the world, though it and fellow ride-sharing giant Lyft have to deal with substantial driver churn.

The last time Pew Research Center conducted a survey of gig economy workers was in 2016. To get a better picture of gig platform work as it is today – including its size and scope and the experiences of those who earn money this way – the Center recently surveyed U.S. adults on its American Trends Panel, including some who have worked in the gig economy themselves.

In this Q&A, we speak with Monica Anderson, an associate director of research at the Center, and Colleen McClain, a research associate, about how they crafted the survey and what they learned from it. Their responses have been edited for clarity and concision.

Pew Research Center first examined what it then called the digital “platform economy” in 2016. Why did you decide this was an appropriate time to revisit the topic?

Colleen McClain, internet and technology research associate at Pew Research Center
Colleen McClain, internet and technology research associate at Pew Research Center

McClain: A lot can change in five years, including when it comes to how Americans find work and how technology shapes that process. Our 2016 study showed that even then, some Americans were turning to online gig platforms to connect with customers and find jobs. Since then, there’s been a tremendous amount of discussion about how this sector of the economy has evolved and how the coronavirus outbreak may be shaping its development. These gig platforms have also increasingly been on the minds of policymakers as they grapple with whether workers should be classified as employees or contractors.

So amid all of this, we embarked on the new study to better understand who these gig platform workers are, to capture their experiences – positive and negative – and to give voice to their opinions and attitudes. We also wanted to know more about how Americans in general view these types of jobs. This time, we were able to survey enough gig workers to build a more detailed, nuanced picture of their experiences – such as looking at differences by demographics and how much they rely on the income from these jobs.

The definition of “gig platform worker” in this report is somewhat different from the equivalent in the 2016 report. What’s changed since then?

Monica Anderson, associate director of research at Pew Research Center
Monica Anderson, associate director of research at Pew Research Center

Anderson: As researchers who study technology for a living, it’s incredibly important that we take account of how quickly things can change and evolve. That definitely was true for us when designing this survey.

For example, one key change since 2016 has been the rise of food delivery apps. Indoor dining was shuttered during the early stages of the pandemic and people’s comfort level with going to restaurants has waned, so apps like UberEats or DoorDash became a more important way for customers to connect with restaurants. We wanted to make sure that people who earn money via gig platforms by delivering meals from local restaurants were included this time around, since the 2016 survey didn’t explicitly ask about that.

Did that lead you to rethink how you asked questions in the survey?

Anderson: That’s right. In 2016, we first asked respondents if they had experience with earning money through taking on jobs via mobile apps or websites that directly connect people with those who want to hire them. For those who said yes, we then gave them a list of specific jobs or tasks and asked them to “check all that apply.”

Since then, the Center has done work on the pros and cons of question formats and found that forced-choice questions tend to yield more accurate data than “check all” lists. So the survey we fielded in August this year took a more direct approach. We decided to drop the screening question and went straight to a series of explicit yes-or-no questions about specific kinds of gig platform jobs: Have you ever earned money by driving for a ride-hailing app such as Uber or Lyft? Have you ever earned money by shopping for or delivering groceries or other household items? Have you ever earned money by performing household tasks or running errands? And so forth.

In all, we found that 16% of Americans have ever earned money through at least one of these ways. That’s the subgroup we consider “gig platform workers” and focus on in this new report. But it’s important to note that there’s not one central definition of the gig economy, and other studies may use different methods to measure the size and scope of this workforce.

Along those lines, why did you feel it was necessary to distinguish between “connecting with people who want to hire you” through an app and “using a personal vehicle to deliver packages” via an app? It seems like the latter is a specific instance of the former.

McClain: We wanted to make sure to capture a range of ways people can earn money via online gig platforms, while also providing enough context for people to understand what we were asking them about.

One defining feature of many of the types of work we were interested in is that the apps connect workers directly with people who want to hire them. But some apps don’t easily fit a single description when it comes to how their technology matches workers with jobs. For example, some companies like Amazon have developed services that let people choose blocks of time to complete a chunk of deliveries – separate from the companies’ more traditional employment arrangements. Like the other apps measured in this survey, these platforms help people find jobs and coordinate payment for them. They just connect workers with shifts, not with people directly.

We decided this type of platform work was important to include, especially since some people have relied on deliveries during the pandemic. We added the detail about using a personal vehicle to help keep our focus on the gig version of these jobs – as opposed to, say, driving a company truck. We think that together, our questions capture a range of gig work available to people today and take into account how the platforms and their technology have evolved.

Despite definitional and question-wording differences, it seems there’s a fair amount of overlap in what the 2016 and 2021 surveys cover. Can the two sets of findings be compared against each other? If not, is there anything we can say about the broad picture of gig platform workers now versus five years ago?

Anderson: Unfortunately, because there are some changes in how these questions were asked, figures aren’t directly comparable across the two surveys. But even though we can’t directly compare data points, some clear patterns did emerge in both surveys.

Most notably, the demographic makeup of the gig workforce tends to skew more non-White, younger – that is, below the age of 30 – and lower-income. Today, just as in 2016, participation in the gig workforce is more common among Hispanic or Black adults than among White adults. (Due to a limited sample size in the 2016 survey, we couldn’t analyze Asian Americans separately.)

What do your findings say about how the broader public views gig work and gig workers, versus how these workers view themselves and their work?

McClain: Some of the biggest policy questions surrounding the gig economy center around ride-hailing – in particular, whether drivers for these apps should be considered employees or independent contractors. Policymakers, voters, advocacy groups and companies all have weighed in on this debate. In our survey, 62% of Americans say these drivers are most appropriately described as contractors, while about a third say they’re best described as employees. The result is similar when we ask people who have ever earned money via gig platforms – not just ride-hailing apps – how they think of themselves. These individuals are also more likely to see themselves as contractors, not employees – 65% vs. 28%.

We also asked people their views of gig platform jobs more generally. Most Americans say gig work is a good way to earn extra money as a side job, work a flexible schedule or be their own boss. And the views of those who have not worked in the gig economy aren’t far removed from the views of those who have. People who have ever earned money through gig platforms hold only slightly less positive views than those who have not earned money in this way.

That said, Americans are more pessimistic about the stability of these jobs, whether they’ve personally earned money doing them or not. Americans are about evenly split when it comes to whether these jobs are a good way to make a living, and a majority say gig platform jobs are not a good way to build a career.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on gig platform workers?

Anderson: There’s been a lot written about gig workers and essential work during the pandemic – especially on those who shopped for and delivered meals, groceries and other household items when indoor dining was shuttered and many people saw in-person shopping as a risky activity.

To better understand gig workers’ own experiences during the pandemic, we asked two specific questions. One focused on their personal health: About half of Americans who earned money through gig platforms in the year before the survey reported being at least somewhat concerned about getting the coronavirus while completing jobs during that time, including 15% who were very concerned about this. Remember, we fielded the survey in August of this year.

The other question tried to get at the economic impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives. While personal finances are tied to a variety of socioeconomic factors, the survey does show that those who have ever earned money through an online gig platform are more likely than those who have not to report their financial situation had changed during the pandemic, either for the better or for the worse.

Generally speaking, it seems there are two distinct kinds of gig platform workers – one group that relies on this work as a major source of income, and another for whom the money is less crucial. Is that a fair reading?

Anderson: We see a clear division between those who depend heavily on the money they earn through gig jobs and those who rely less on this income to make ends meet. Roughly six-in-ten Americans who’ve earned money this way in the past year describe this income as “essential” or “important” for meeting their basic needs over the past 12 months, while about four-in-ten describe this income as nice to have, but not needed. This distinction represents a key dividing line in terms of motivations, hours worked and whether people describe these jobs as their main line of work.

For example, 61% of current or recent gig platform workers who say the money they earn through these platforms is essential or important for meeting basic needs say a major reason they’ve done this work is to cover gaps or changes in their income. That compares with 38% of those who say the money they earn is nice to have, but not needed.

Current or recent gig workers who are more financially dependent on these platforms are also more likely to say they spend at least 10 hours doing these jobs or tasks in a typical week or that this type of work has been their main job over the past year.

Drew DeSilver  is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.