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The ‘gig economy’ benefits some more than others, research shows

Nearly one in four Americans earns money from the digital ‘‘platform economy,’’ according to the Pew Research Center.
Nearly one in four Americans earns money from the digital ‘‘platform economy,’’ according to the Pew Research Center. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The ‘‘gig economy,’’ popularized by the likes of Lyft, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit, has for years been promoted as an effective way for Americans to make money on their own terms. But new data show that the majority of workers — 85 percent of them — make less than $500 a month, on average, with such services.

The home-sharing site Airbnb yielded the highest monthly return, with a median income of $440, more than double the $210 a month earned by the median Lyft driver, according to San Francisco loan provider Earnest, which analyzed tens of thousands of loan applications to study the impact of gig-economy jobs.

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(Earnings on other popular platforms included a monthly median of $40 on the craft-selling site Etsy; $70 on delivery app Postmates; $110 on services marketplace TaskRabbit; and $155 on ride-hailing app Uber.)

‘‘We’re starting to see that these gigs are filling in the gaps for a lot of people — a little bit of extra money here for a student loan payment, or a few hours of work there to create additional income,’’ said Catherine New, a senior editor at Earnest. ‘‘But bigger picture, you also see that people are having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.’’

Nearly one in four Americans earns money from the digital ‘‘platform economy,’’ according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. And increasingly, their experiences — and their earnings — are split between those who are supplementing their incomes with side gigs and those who rely on those piecemeal earnings to eke out a living.

There are ‘‘profound differences’’ in the ways people use the gig economy, said Aaron Smith, associate director of research on Internet and technology at Pew.

‘‘A young professional who occasionally supplements her income by renting out her apartment on Airbnb is much different from a single mother who works for a ride-hailing service in between child-care obligations,’’ Smith wrote in the report.

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Black and Latino workers, and those with lower household incomes, tend to take on labor-intensive tasks — driving passengers for Uber or Lyft, say, or delivering groceries through Instacart or Postmates, the survey found.

Their wealthier, white counterparts were more likely to make money by renting out rooms in their homes through Airbnb or selling handmade or used goods online on sites like Etsy.

‘‘In the case of gig work, workers who describe the income they earn from these platforms as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ are more likely to come from low-income households, to be non-white and to have not attended college,’’ the report says.

‘‘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.’’

In either case, experts say a slow job market recovery, growing income inequality, and stagnant wages — combined with ballooning student loan debt — have exacerbated financial burdens for many Americans, leading to the growing popularity of side gigs. As a result, platforms like Uber, which has more than 1 million drivers, have grown rapidly in recent years.

‘‘While we continue to be at what is considered full employment, the quality of each of those jobs has been dwindling, causing people to seek out new ways to supplement their full-time income,’’ said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. ‘‘There is a lot more volatility in the world of work today than there was 20 or 30 years ago.’’

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At the same time that it’s become harder to find a stable source of income to sustain a family, it’s become easier than ever to download an app that allows you to drive around passengers, rent out your bed, or stand in line for concert tickets in exchange for money, said Sundararajan, author of the book ‘‘The Sharing Economy.’’

But, he added, the findings raise concerns about whether these arrangements are in the best interest of workers.

One in five Americans feels that gig-economy jobs place ‘‘too much financial burden’’ on workers, Pew says; 23 percent said such jobs allow companies to take advantage of workers, who often shoulder many of the costs.