Lyft and Uber stickers on back window of blue car
Credit: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock
Susan Campbell

It’s a gig economy and the rest of us are just living in it. In fact, employees lucky enough to be a member of someone’s work staff – a direct employee of a company and not a subcontractor – may just be biding our time.

I teach at a college where the gig economy finds its workers. Students age 18 and up are a prime market – I mean to say target – for such jobs. Then, too, if students aren’t gig workers, they are surrounded by people who are. The success of institutions of higher education depends on gig workers, from the people who serve meals in the cafeteria to the adjunct professors who – for less pay and little to no benefits – make up as much as half of their faculty.

Go off campus, and you most likely will interact with a gig worker – the person delivering boxes to your door, the driver bringing your dinner, or the person walking your dog.

Other than broad statistics, it’s difficult to come up with much detail about gig workers partly because, as researchers say, we lack a good, commonly-accepted definition of “gig worker.” I can teach a college student much about the basics of such an economy. Many of them are in it, already. They’re Door Dashers. They drive for Uber or Grubhub. They deliver packages in and around town.

And if they’ve been in the gig economy for long, they know they are on the losing end of an economic system where people with resources benefit from the ease and convenience of, say, a quick ride to the train station, while the driver walks away with sometimes shockingly little compensation. They are not much protected by labor laws. Forget health insurance. They don’t get that, either. 

As for the company that uses these workers as inappropriately named “independent contractors,” Uber Technologies, for instance, has had a fabulous week on the stock market.

Although researchers say we lack a good definition, in general a gig economy is the part of the service industry where workers are contractors, not employees in the traditional sense of the word. Gigging is also called crowdworking, freelancing, sharing economy, on-demand economy, and platform economy because it almost always involves an online platform.

I am intrigued by the misnomer, “sharing economy,” because a gig economy does anything but. The UAW is threatening to strike, in part, over the (mis)treatment of their industry’s temporary workers.

College students are especially vulnerable to signing up for such work because they aren’t necessarily thinking about long-term job commitments, and they often don’t think about health insurance, not while they’re still on their parents’ policy. They are, however, drawn to the idea that they can earn extra money at a job that requires no special training – though it may require a car, provided by them, which means more repairs and more oil changes.

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Earlier this year, delivery workers and rideshare drivers rallied around a bill before Connecticut legislators that would have raised the drivers’ minimum pay, and allowed drivers who take Connecticut passengers over a state line to then pick up out-of-state passengers and return them to Connecticut. The bill also called for increased transparency around fares. In public testimony, one Waterbury app-based driver said she’s watched her pay drop from $600 a week for five days’ driving during the worst of the pandemic, to $200 a week – if it’s a busy week, and never mind tire repairs.

The bill made it out of the Senate, but time ran out.

The gig economy is, according to some estimates, about to blow past $455 billion. Government regulation has not kept up, though the Federal Trade Commission has dipped a toe in, as with a $61.7 million fine they levied against Amazon in 2021 for not paying Amazon Flex drivers their share of customer tips. The FTC also announced last September that it would start prioritizing protecting gig workers.

To understand why such unbridled growth has been allowed, look no further than a gig economy’s beneficiaries. Corporations have more lobbying power than gig workers. In his 2023 book, “Poverty, By America,” Matthew Desmond points to the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has sent out quite a few press releases arguing that a gig economy is good for the American worker.

It isn’t. It is, however, cheaper for a company to hire independent workers, skip paying benefits, and glean the rewards of extra hands.

A few years ago, a Harvard Business Review article suggested that colleges weren’t adequately preparing college graduates to be workers in a gig economy. I would never argue against teaching students to be independent, but the gig economy is not where I would aim them. Shouldn’t we be offering something more, more stable, more beneficial, just more in general?

Author of "Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood," "Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker," and "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl." Find more at

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