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How Gig Economy Workers Make A Living

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Have what you need but maybe not everything you want?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat, then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six-figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000 probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me (laughter). And it means I'm in trouble (laughter).


This is Hanging On, our series about the economic pressures of American life. This week - the online gig economy, a growing sector built by people who want to be their own bosses, make their own schedules and sometimes set their own prices. Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Seamless - these companies allow people to do just that. For some, it's a critical supplemental income. For others, it's just a way to add flexibility to their lives.

Alan Krueger is an economics professor at Princeton University and the former chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. He's been studying the gig economy and Uber drivers, in particular. He tells us who's benefiting.

ALAN KRUEGER: Some workers do it full time, but most do it on a part-time basis. And most do it on an intermittent basis, where they don't do it every week. They choose their own schedule from day to day. And they have the opportunity to decide whether they want to work on any particular day and what hours they want to work.

MARTIN: Do they usually have other, what we would consider to be more traditional, jobs that they do for maybe eight hours during the day and then they're just filling out a 24-hour period with a couple of gig-economy jobs?

KRUEGER: Again it's a mixture. Almost a third of the Uber drivers have a full-time job. And they're driving for Uber in addition to their full-time job. About a third have a part-time job. And a little over a third have no other work that they're doing, and they may have other activities in their daily life like watching children or going to school. And they're using part of their time to drive for Uber.

MARTIN: How has the online gig economy affected our recovery as a country from the recession?

KRUEGER: Well, I think the online gig economy is really separate from the recovery. I think it's being driven by technology and entrepreneurship, which are providing new opportunities for workers. What we saw in studying Uber is that workers are more likely to provide services in the online gig economy when they have a drop in income from other sources. So it helps them to smooth their income volatility, which, I think, is an indication of the new ways in which the opportunity can help people to adjust for income losses in other areas.

MARTIN: Is this whole space being regulated? I mean, there are some risks associated with diving into this world, right, if you're a worker?

KRUEGER: Absolutely. And I think it's very important that we look closely at the labor protections in this area. I think it's important that we try to maintain the flexibility that this new development affords. But I think it's also important that we extend as much of our social safety net as we can to this group of workers. And for the most part, the courts and the companies have defined the workers as independent contractors, which means that they don't have many of the protections that traditional employees have.

MARTIN: Professor Alan Krueger talking to us about the gig economy.

Thanks so much for your time.

KRUEGER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.