Labor Day and the Gig Economy

Labor Day has been a US national holiday since 1894. At the end of the 19th century trade unions were a growing political force in America, so they pushed for – and got – a Federally recognized celebration of their cause. Times have changed, of course. As recently as 1983 labor unions represented 20.1% of the entire US workforce. Now, that number is just 10.7%.

Many years ago I was at a United Auto Workers convention in Detroit, where a large banner read: “Overtime is Someone Else’s Job”. The play on words was, I thought, very clever. Overtime was (and is) a big deal in manufacturing plants. Companies like it because it allows them to flex capacity as needed. Unions don’t, because it limits potential new hiring for another shift. Not much has changed, I remember thinking, since the 1890s.

All that also got me to wondering: how many Americans do “Someone else’s job” by holding down 2 positions at the same time? The BLS has the data back to 1994, and here’s what it says:

  • 5.0% of the US workforce works more than one job as of the latest data from July 2018. It has not been this high in the month of July since 2009 when it was 5.2%.
  • 54% of workers with 2 jobs have one full time position and one or more part time jobs.
  • 26% have two or more part time jobs.
  • 5% hold down 2 full time jobs.
  • 15% have 2 or more jobs that vary between full and part time.
  • The long-term trend in the American workforce is towards fewer multiple jobholders. Since the BLS started keeping this data in 1994, the peak percentage of this cohort relative to the entire US workforce was in 1996 at 6.3%. This declined to 5.3% during the early 2000s and has been typically below 5% in the current recovery.

Two takeaways from this data:

  • There is surprisingly little evidence that the new tech-enabled “gig economy” has changed how Americans work over the last 3-5 years. If it had we would expect to see more people with multiple positions, enabled by smartphone apps and new businesses that let them do 2 or 3 jobs as they chose.
  • Multiple jobholders as a percent of the US workforce seems to be non-cyclical, something that also surprises me. I thought we would see spikes during recessions (workers making ends meet) or cycle peaks (making hay while the sun shines). The data clearly shows otherwise.

Bottom line: in the spirit of Labor Day, spare a thought for those working multiple jobs. I, for one, find their commitment and work ethic very inspirational.

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