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We Can't Seem To Figure How Much Of A Thing The Gig Economy Really Is

A string of on-demand startup failures suggests the "Uber for x" trend might be succumbing to legal and financial troubles. Then again, new research indicates that this has only been the beginning.

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It's not always clear what we're talking about when we talk about the gig economy. In some cases, it's a very specific descriptor, one that applies only to the the bevy of Uber drivers and TaskRabbit taskers who make their livings doing piecemeal labor via one or more apps. In other cases, and depending on who you're talking to, it's a much bigger segment, taking in any individual who intends to work for more than a handful of companies in their lifetime, or has a second freelance gig on the side, or isn't paying into a single 401k. That's a pretty big range.

Today, the small-business management software company Intuit has some new research out that aims to clarify what the on-demand economy — or the sharing economy, or gig economy, or 1099 economy, or whatever you're calling it — really is, and how many people it involves. Currently, the report finds, 3.2 million American workers are actively engaged in this kind of work, at least part-time. By 2020, according to a forecast Intuit collaborated on with Emergent Research, there will be 7.6 million such people. That's nearly four times as many people who work for Walmart.

Intuit and Emergent have worked together on this kind of research before. They've also predicted that by 2020, 40% of America's workforce will be part of the"contingent workforce" — the somewhat clunky name the report gives anyone who's done contract work or filled out a 1099 form. Only a small fraction of that group is made up of people who work for apps like Postmates or Instacart or Lyft — but it's growing. Intuit Vice President of Self-Employed Solutions Alex Chriss said the new data shows that by 2020, 11% of contingent workers — who by that point will make up nearly half of American workers — will be working for on-demand apps.

"The idea here was to get a sense of, how impactful is the overall on-demand economy?" Chriss told BuzzFeed News. "We're interested, how fast is it growing? There's a lot of media and buzz around it, but what's its actual size?"

Helpfully, the report breaks down with some specificity the types of companies and services it considers part of the "on-demand economy" into four categories: transportation (think Uber), labor marketplaces (think Elance), space rental (think Airbnb), and miscellaneous services (think TaskRabbit). It's worth noting, though, that while the report predicts an 18.5% per year increase in people doing this kind of work regularly between now and 2020, it also notes that 80% of the people it polled for its data analysis do this kind of work part-time. So while the report suggests that more people overall will be running their side hustle via digital platforms, most of them will probably still have another, more traditional, form of employment.

Of course, Intuit sells a software product — QuickBooks Self-Employed — aimed at these independent workers, meaning the company has a significant financial stake in this industry growing. But that also means Intuit sits on a fairly unique set of data about the on-demand economy and how it's developing — namely, its customers. Over the next couple months, Intuit will be partnering with Emergent and a number of on-demand industry partners (including Upwork, Fiverr, Visually, Wonolo, and more) to conduct a more in-depth study analyzing the demographics of this group of workers, as well as their experience on the job.

Chriss thinks the survey will find that these people are happier with their current work lives than the public might expect. And right now, the public likely expects very little: Lawsuit after lawsuit — and news story after news story — have created the impression that on-demand workers are exploited and miserable, and that the model itself is precarious. A handful of on-demand companies have given up on using cheap contract labor, but not before on-demand cleaning company Homejoy unexpectedly went underlast month. And what's more, on Wednesday, Zen99, which made software aimed at streamlining the complicated tax process for independent contractors, announced that it was also shutting down. Intuit's Self-Employed services were in competition with Zen99, and now the company is happily scooping up the former competition's customer base. But some saw Zen99's failure as further proof that the scope of the 1099 economy is rapidly turning out to be significantly narrower than it was originally cracked up to be.

Of course, that's just the impression Intuit's latest survey was conducted in hopes of negating. And Chriss is confident that despite what he called a "frothy" market, the on-demand economy is going to be a real and lasting part of the contingent workforce and the American economy as a whole. In the meantime, when it comes to venture-backed startups, "some are gonna win, and some are gonna lose."

"We never needed 75 dog-walking platforms in San Francisco," he said. "But it's not that the model doesn't work."

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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