Don’t believe the gloomsters – the booming gig economy is good news for workers


The country was glad to wave goodbye to lockdown life, but some of the habits it taught us remain. One is getting things – dinner, groceries, parcels – delivered to our homes, often in minutes, by tapping an app. That means more work for the people who make those deliveries – often self-employed contractors doing tasks arranged via “platform” companies such as Deliveroo or Uber.

This gig economy is a big deal, and getting bigger. More than four million people now earn at least some of their income from platform work, and the number is rising.

Some in politics and the media would tell you that the rise of platform working shows that a soulless capitalist system is stealing economic power and even free will from workers, leaving them with no choice but to eke out a miserable existence delivering pizzas. That’s a touching story, but there’s one problem with it: it’s not true. Gig-economy workers are as happy as others in the workforce. Far from being forced into platform work, they actively choose it.

I know this because the Social Market Foundation asked them. We ran surveys and focus groups with more than 9,000 people, including Deliveroo riders, former riders, others in the gig economy and traditional employees.

We did this in partnership with Deliveroo because the company gave us full access to those thousands of riders, and accepted our editorial independence: everything we learnt about those riders we publish today.

And what we found is that gig workers are making active and informed choices. Four in five Deliveroo riders left conventional employment in order to do platform work; a clear majority told us they could get a traditional job instead, but didn’t want to.

Their alternatives include work in retail or hospitality, where employers are crying out for staff and wages are rising. Yet they still chose gig work.

The biggest reason is that self-employed platform workers can choose when and how often to work, meaning they can fit it around family or study. They are more likely to say they are happy with the flexibility their employment offers them than conventionally employed people.

But don’t the giggers miss out on the benefits that come with employment, such as paid holidays? Yes, but knowingly and willingly. When we asked if they’d like more benefits, many expressed an interest – but not if it meant giving up their self-employed status. Nine in 10 riders told us they wouldn’t want to become employees. They accept the trade-off between flexibility and benefits.

This is the key to understanding the gig economy. Platform workers are no different to the rest of us: they weigh their options, accept trade-offs and make choices. They’re not victims of a callous capitalist plot. They are grown-ups making decisions.

They are about as happy as the rest of us, too: satisfaction levels in the gig economy are on a par with the general workforce, with about three-quarters of Deliveroo riders telling us they are content with their work.

Money is a big factor here. Most riders say they are satisfied with their earnings – 57 per cent say they earn more with Deliveroo than they could elsewhere. There are grumbles, of course – 23 per cent of riders are dissatisfied with their earnings – but that is exactly the same proportion as in the general workforce.

If gig workers are no more or less satisfied than others, why do we so often hear that they are sad and exploited? One reason is that many commentators are determined to cast any evolution in the labour market as harmful.

More Deliveroo riders than members of the general workforce say that they’re “very unsatisfied” with work. But they are also more likely to be “very satisfied” – and happy riders outnumber discontented ones three to one. For most, gig work works.

So, is the gig economy a good thing? That’s a simple question with complicated answers, and the debate will develop along with the sector. But instead of listening to agenda-driven horror stories about platform work, anyone interested in this part of the labour market should instead study the evidence.

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

8 + 2 =