The verdict on the “sharing” economy, from the 20% of Americans who’ve worked in it

The future of work?
The future of work?
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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In 2015, the number of people driving for Uber in the US ballooned from 160,000 to more than 400,000. Lyft also added drivers. Airbnb signed up new hosts. Grocery-platform Instacart enlisted thousands more shoppers. Delivery service Postmates quadrupled its couriers.

Just how big has the new digital economy—variously called ”gig,” “on-demand,” “sharing,” and more—gotten? Big enough that one in five Americans say they’ve worked in it, and two in five say they’ve used services through it, according to a new survey from Burson-Marsteller, the Aspen Institute, and Time. (Though it almost certainly remains tiny in terms of GDP or overall hours worked.)

What kinds of platforms are people using? Perhaps not surprisingly, for customers, car-hailing services such as Uber are most popular, followed by home and vacation rentals like Airbnb. On the service-provider side, home services—cleaning and handyman-type tasks—employ the most people, with car services coming second. Here’s a breakdown from the survey, which collected responses online from 3,000 US adults.

More interesting than what these people are using on-demand services for, however, is how they think about them. According to Burson-Marsteller’s survey, the vast majority of customers—76%—report having an entirely or mostly positive experience with on-demand companies. They think the services save them money and allow them to try things they otherwise couldn’t afford.

Workers are similarly optimistic. Just over half of people who’ve worked on these platforms say their personal financial situation improved during the last year, and 61% agreed with the statement that “sharing economy companies care about their workers.”

Those sentiments offer a rosy contrast to the other narrative often told about these platforms: that they provide short-term financial support at the expense of traditional worker safety nets like health insurance and social security, and exploit the often fine line between independent contractor and employee to keep their business models lean. Lawsuits are pending against many on-demand companies for precisely these reasons, the most notable being a certified class action in California against Uber.

The thing is, the survey doesn’t totally disagree. More than half of people who’ve worked in the on-demand economy agreed that “sharing economy companies are exploiting a lack of regulation for immediate growth.” And the more they work in this economy, the likelier they are to think it’s exploitative: The survey found that 72% of ”motivated workers”—those defined as people who get at least 40% of their income from on-demand work, or say they can’t find a more traditional job—agreed with the statement.

Also, unlike some company-sponsored surveys—which tend to say that workers overwhelmingly prefer the flexibility of contract work to the protections of traditional employment—the Burson-Marsteller survey finds an even split. To be precise, 43% say they prefer the independence of on-demand work even at the expense of job security and benefits, and 41% say they’d give up that independence for a more traditional and stable job.

In short, people generally like the idea of the on-demand economy. But when they have to deal with its realities, they’re not quite so sure.