Is Growth in the Gig Economy Stalling Out?

New data shows the number of people earning money on sites such as Uber, Etsy and Airbnb appears to be growing more slowly

By Josh Zumbrun

  JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute analyzed bank records to see how many people were actually receiving earnings from Uber, TaskRabbit, eBay, Airbnb and nearly 40 other sites considered part of the "gig economy.” Photo: iStock     

Just as we’ve started to get a handle on the ways online sharing platforms such as Uber and Airbnb are changing the nature of work in the U.S., it appears growth on the platforms may be slowing.

That’s according to new data from the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute, which analyzed bank records to see how many people were actually receiving earnings from Uber, TaskRabbit, eBay, Airbnb and nearly 40 other sites considered part of the “gig economy” where people sell goods or their own labor.

These new sites and platforms hold the potential to radically reshape the American workforce, leaving a growing number of employees severed from traditional payroll jobs. But just how much is that actually happening? Research has suggested that most of the rise in independent contracting has been happening outside of these high-profile online platforms. And now, the latest data from JPMorgan suggests growth in the number of active users of online platforms is slowing down.

The report distinguishes between two types of platforms: those where users sell “capital,” whether it’s goods on eBay or Etsy or renting apartments, and those where users sell “labor,” such as Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and so on. They find that about 1% of adults are active on such platforms in any given month. That’s up, but only a little bit, from estimates made earlier this year. The period of explosive growth for this type of work may be over. (Only a trivial number of people use both types of platforms.)

“The online platform economy continues to grow, but the pace of growth has slowed dramatically,” said Diana Farrell, the head of the JPMorgan Chase Institute. “As unemployment falls and more people gain traditional jobs, they are less likely to participate in the online platform economy and more likely to exit.”

JPMorgan’s records show not only how many people are actively working on the platforms, but how many have ever earned money from them. That reveals an interesting finding: an ever-growing number of people have tried out platforms and earned money on them at some point—4.3% of the adult population—but a much smaller number are sticking with it on a regular basis. Less than 1% of adults are active on the platforms in any given month.

In fact, the majority of participants stop using the platforms after less than a year. About 52% of people using labor platforms and 56% of people using capital platforms quit after a year.

Only 26% of people who try labor platforms have done so for more than two years, and only 22% of capital platform participants have done so. About one in six active participants are new each month.

This extraordinarily high turnover “implies that growth in online platform participation is highly dependent on attracting new participants or increasing the attachment of existing participants,” the report says. In other words, if companies in the gig economy want to keep growing, they need a strategy to stop people from quitting after a few months.

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