When you live a region as expensive as Boston’s, it helps to have a side hustle. Technology has swept in and made the gig economy—a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.—more accessible than ever, for both workers and the people who hire them, and on the surface, it might look like it’s the most promising sector of the economy. Uber and Lyft drivers seem to be everywhere, office lunches are now provided by GrubHub and AirBnb has emerged as an affordable alternative for tourists to expensive downtown area.
But if the gig economy is the future, it’s a future that looks a lot like the bottom end of today’s job market. Driving dominates the market, and it’s flooded with employees. What was - for a short while - a hot new trend to make some money on, quickly became just another way for people to grind away at.
Gig workers earn less than their non-gig counterparts. According to a JPMorgan Chase study of 2.3 million accounts belonging to workers in the gig economy, the average monthly income was just $837 compared to about $4,012 for all workers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers in the gig economy are nearly three times more likely to need a second job to get by than non-gig workers. .
One in every five members of the gig economy works driving for a rideshare company or making deliveries. However, according the BLS those jobs accounts for around 6 percent of the economy as a whole. The low wages are a result of just a small number of industries, all of which are flooded with employees.
Fifty-six percent of gig economy workers consider those gigs essential or important for their survival, according to a 2018 survey from JP Morgan. Americans whose gig jobs provides labor or a service - such as an Uber driver, TaskRabbit worker or tutor - rely on that job for an average of 25 percent of their yearly earnings.
Alexandrea Ravenelle, an assistant professor at Mercy College and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, divides gig economy workers into three groups: “strugglers,” who have been down on their luck, unemployed or undocumented immigrants; “strivers,” who are middle class and consider their work extra income; and “success stories,” for whom their gig economy job has turned into the dream everyone wants.
Some people might consider Jeff Carpenter of Revere a struggler. Driving for Uber and Lyft provided him with enough income to move out of his mother’s home, buy a new car, Patriots’ playoff tickets and perhaps most significantly, quit one of the two restaurant jobs he was working.
Carpenter is actually thriving though. Just years earlier, he was an alcoholic, living in the woods in Gloucester. He cleaned up his act and got sober before he relapsed again. Driving for Uber and Lyft, and the seemingly unlimited number hours he can work has helped him stay focused on sobriety.
“The only thing I knew was get up, find a way to get drunk and just do that every day. The alcohol just makes you think that’s OK,” Carpenter said. “I like the way I live a lot better now, where I do have the opportunity to do whatever I want...Bruins games, Patriots games, there were moments when I would be like ‘that would be great but I’m too busy drinking.”
It seems like Carpenter is almost always working. So long as the money is there, Carpenter can see himself sticking with Uber and Lyft for the long haul. He never went to college, and doesn’t see any other opportunity that gives him the same flexibility. Carpenter, 30, is a recovering alcoholic who just two years ago was living homeless in Gloucester. He worked his way back from homelessness through rehab, relapsed, and then got sober again.
In addition to driving, Carpenter works four nights a week at Legal Sea Foods in Peabody. Before driving, the restaurant industry was all he ever knew, and when he climbed back from alcoholism, it’s the only industry that offered to pay him a livable wage.
“It’s about having some type of balance,” Carpenter said. “If I had to depend on all my money from driving and I did have a slow week, that'd be tough.”
Ravenelle says that a large portion of what she classifies as “strugglers” are people of color. According to her findings, blacks and Latinos tend to take up transportation jobs in the gig-economy. This phenomenon echoes the devastating economic reality that many non-white americans face, where there is a historical wealth gap of over $100,000 between white and non-white households
Robin Theisen walks dogs with Wag!, It’s a job that came out of necessity. Theisen was a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, but suffered an injury on the job. Despite receiving disability pay, that wasn’t enough money to make ends meet.
There was very little investment cost on the employee’s end to working for Wag!: just some disposable dog poop bags and the train fare to get to the Back Bay neighborhood from home in Braintree. But, like Uber, a flooded market has equaled a smaller pay day.
“I think it would be very difficult to make this a full-time job,” Theisen said. “It certainly is fun, and it pays well, it's fine for what it is right now.
Adjunct professors often must piece together several different jobs to make a living. The same often goes for academic tutors.
Sue Brody is a 50-year-old part-timer at Northeastern University’s international tutoring center, where she’s worked since September, 2012.
“I like it,” said Brody. “I wish it was more than 20 hours.”
Brody makes ends meet stringing together work as a tutor for several colleges and a test proctor at Roxbury Community College. Previously, she worked in admissions at Boston Architectural College. She loves writing and working with students. And she likes that when she goes home, she feels like she helped those students and contributed in some way to their day. But can Brody make a living by tutoring?
Those positions are unfortunately very difficult because it is just easier for the university to hire more part-time tutors than one or two full-time tutors,” she said.
Evan MacIsaac’s passion, requires flying to Japan several times a year to see traditional Japanese musical theater. That can get expensive.
"Yeah I'm a little obsessed. I wish I wasn't but for some reason that's my obsession,” MacIssac said.
During the day, MacIssac works in quality control for Tufts Health Care. The work is remote, and there are busy times of year and slow spots. During those slow spots, MacIssac works as a dog walker for Wag! to help pay for those trips across the world. The income is non-essential, and is mainly used to pay tourism fees. Last year, MacIssac worked a lot, and would sometimes earn as much as $300 a week. This year, thanks in part to less motivation and in part to a flooded market, that number has dropped down to around $100 a week.
Eric Fanelli’s gig job used to be a hobby and that brought in extra income. He bought used hockey gear in bulk from local colleges, then sold the gear on SidelineSwap.com, an online marketplace. Over the past few years, he’s sold more than 3,000 items on the site. Currently, there are more than 700 items for sale.
Now, Fanelli Hockey is now his full-time job. He left Ryder — and a salary around $100,000 a year — after 13 years in late 2017. There were certain things that helped Eric began this gig in his late 30s. An already-established source of income was one of them.
This is a key factor for the success stories for Ravenelle. They “are coming in with a high level of financial capital.” Demographically, they tend to be white males, and often identify as entrepreneurs.
“This wouldn't have been possible if I started out in my 20s,” he said. “My parents helped me out, I got a bank loan that was based off of years doing business with a bank. When I took my loan I was working full time and had income from the full-time job. It wasn't just like ‘oh hey i'm going to start this business.'”
The venture came at a cost, though. Fanelli’s annual income hovers around $45,000 now, less than half of what he made at his former day job. His family is able to obtain benefits such as healthcare through his wife. But the flexibility gives him more time to spend with his three daughters, whose hockey teams he coaches. Eric spends his precious time focusing on what he wants to do. It’s worth it to him.
There was a point in time, according to Harvard University economics chair Richard Freeman, when people thought the gig economy could only grow exponentially. Freeman doesn’t think that’s the future looks like though.
““It's likely to be a reasonably permanent part of the economy offering opportunities for young people or people who can get the bulk of their income, their lifetime income, from some more permanent source,” he said. “There's always a possibility that more and more of the companies will outsource their work to potentially gig-type people.“
Ravenelle thinks that it’s less of a new-age movement in the workforce, and more like resurgence of the type of work that many Americans relied on.
“It's app enabled, but this disruption is really just returning us to a workplace like our great grandparents had,” she said. “It's rolling back a hundred years, more than a hundred years of workplace protection and doing it in the name of modernity.”