What is the Gig Economy?

The gig economy is made up of three main components: the independent workers paid by the gig (i.e., a task or a project) as opposed to those workers who receive a salary or hourly wage; the consumers who need a specific service, for example, a ride to their next destination, or a particular item delivered; and the companies that connect the worker to the consumer in a direct manner, including app-based technology platforms. Companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, Etsy or TaskRabbit act as the medium through which the worker is connected to – and ultimately paid by – the consumer. These companies make it easier for workers to find a quick, temporary job (i.e., a gig), which can include any kind of work, from a musical performance to fixing a leaky faucet. One of the main differences between a gig and traditional work arrangements, however, is that a gig is a temporary work engagement, and the worker is paid only for that specific job.

“The gig economy is not new – people have always worked gigs… but today when most people refer to the “gig economy,” they’re specifically talking about new technology-enabled kinds of work.”

–Ms. Molly Turner, Lecturer, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley and the former Director of Public Policy for Airbnb

The gig economy is by no means a new concept, but this past decade has seen it expand greatly. The share of the U.S. workforce in the gig economy rose from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015.1 In 2016, 24 percent of Americans reported earning some money from the “digital platform economy” during the previous year (2015).2 The number of self-employed individuals (many of whom are independent workers in the gig economy) soared by over 19 percent from 2005 to 2015, with great variation across the country (See Map 1). At the same time, the gross receipts of these independent workers grew by nearly 21 percent. The South saw the largest growth in the number of self-employed individuals (27 percent), followed by the West (21 percent). Revenue also increased the fastest in the South (23 percent), followed closely by the Northeast (21 percent) and the West (20 percent).3


How people live, work and spend their money has changed dramatically over the past decade, especially with the advent of smartphone technology. Being hyper-connected via social networks has increased communication and has opened new ways to make and spend money – online, picking up a “gig” (or a temporary work engagement) is as easy as making plans for dinner or finding a date. The so-called “gig economy” is altering the way that people view and perform work, and counties must be ready to respond with innovative policies and programs.

At NACo’s 2017 Annual Conference and Exposition, the Counties Futures Lab hosted a workshop on the gig economy and how the rise of the freelance workforce is affecting counties across the country. Moderator Hon. Rich Fitzgerald, County Executive, Allegheny County, Pa., and presenters Dr. Trevor Brown, Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University; and Molly Turner, Lecturer, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley and the former Director of Public Policy for Airbnb – all shared their insights based on their experiences and interactions with the gig economy.

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The Hon. Rich Fitzgerald
County Executive
Allegheny County, Pa.

Dr. Trevor Brown
Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs
The Ohio State University

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Molly Turner
Lecturer, Hass School of Business
University of California Berkeley