Transcript – Brawley Newlin interview about the gig economy with On Target podcast for The Gettysburgian

Ben Pontz: We’re thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Alice Brawley Newlin, Assistant Professor of Management at Gettysburg College. Dr. Brawley Newlin, thanks so much for joining us.

Alice Brawley Newlin: Thanks for having me, Ben.

Pontz: So, your area of academic research is on the gig economy, and why don’t we start there? What is the gig economy?

Brawley Newlin: The gig economy is the latest version of a really longstanding trend. We like to think of things like Uber and Uber drivers, as all being a new phenomenon. But really, we’ve had the same thing for a very long time. In general, with the gig economy, we define that as being short-term work. So, an Uber ride, that work is very short-term. The rides are a minute, maybe half an hour long, and that’s much more short-term than typical work where, you’re working somewhere for days, weeks, months, years.

And the other element, in addition to it being short-term, is usually that it’s mediated by some technological platform. That is the new twist. These platforms haven’t been around as long as some of the other elements of the work, but we’ve certainly always had people who moonlight or have a side gig, and that’s really where the term comes from, is musicians playing gigs that were short-term, and now we have all these apps that have made this phenomenon really popular.

Pontz: Yeah, I was actually thinking about musicians earlier. So, would we still consider someone who plays jazz piano or something in the evenings, is that still part of what we consider definitionally, part of the gig economy?

Brawley Newlin: The short answer is, it depends. It is up to you as a researcher. And I think that’s one of the exciting things about this area of research, is that it’s not all set in stone yet. The definition that I talked about, having those two elements, even that’s not settled. There’s data that just came out last week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they specifically say that there is no set definition of the gig economy. We don’t have one. Researchers have ones that vary, and are all over the place a little bit.

Back to your question, then, about whether musicians would still count, it depends. I think I would count that, just because it still fits that short-term need. But it isn’t typically through a platform, although I guess you could definitely be getting gigs at this point as a musician through, say, Facebook or through other technological mediums.

Pontz: What is it about the technological mediation that kind of makes things different than, in terms of from a labor research perspective, that makes things different than the classic conception of what matters or what counts as a gig, so to speak?

Brawley Newlin: I think there are a lot of things that are different. I would say, there’s almost more things that are different than that are the same. But a big issue that comes up is the idea of being managed without having a manager. For example, Uber drivers are managed by the app, and the app will make suggestions to them to keep driving, but there’s no manager there interacting with them, telling them what to do, and a lot of it is automated. So that’s another element that’s very different. Someone had to program it to start with, but there is no human making those human resources decisions anymore.

Pontz: Right. So, it raises, I imagine, all kinds of ethical questions regarding that. But looking at your research specifically, what is it about the gig economy that first got you interested in that as a research topic, and then what are you currently focusing on?

Brawley Newlin: Okay. This is a funny story. I started out doing different research on different sorts of contextual variables in the workplace. I was interested in the work environment, and what are those variables that matter for workers’ experiences, and I collected some data on a particular gig platform. Have you heard of MTurk?

Pontz: Mm-hmm.

Brawley Newlin: It’s this online platform. You can go do surveys there. You can do anything basically that you can do on a computer, and usually they don’t pay very much. So, I collected data that way. It had become really popular in my graduate program for the students to collect their data that way, because you can collect data really quickly and relatively cheaply. So you can graduate faster, which is nice.

Pontz: A goal.

Brawley Newlin: Yeah, absolutely. So, I collected data that way. But I wanted to make sure I was getting good quality data, so I included attention checking items in my survey to make sure that people were responding in a way that indicated they were paying attention, and I made some decisions to not pay individuals who failed. Now I see that they failed an attention checking item that was too tricky. But I decided to not pay them, and they were really pissed off at me. So, I got their comments on the internet.

I’ve shown my students. You can go find them. They call me a “scumbag requester,” and said that I gave my whole graduate institution a bad name. And it was this shocking moment, and I was, of course, very upset as a young researcher to have that happen. But it was almost a light bulb moment of, wow, these people take this seriously like it’s a job. Then, it was just like, okay, I research work… Why aren’t we looking at this type of job? That’s where I got into that area of work.

Pontz: So, you’re doing this research project, and you suddenly come upon the notion that people take surveys as jobs. Where did you go from there?

Brawley Newlin: From there, then I did a study that was published in 2016, where we looked at job satisfaction. Just as a basic first study, what predicts these workers’ job satisfaction? Traditionally, that falls into three categories of predictors in my field. We look at personal factors, so things like your personality traits, how positive or negative you are as a person in general, and whether that relates to your job satisfaction.

The second category is situational factors, like, what is your boss like, and what is the work environment like? Then, a third category that’s kind of a cross between those two, are the interactions between personality traits and situational traits – things where it’s a situational characteristic, but how you perceive it depends on your personality. An example of that could be something like pay satisfaction. So, the situational factor is the pay level, but your pay satisfaction depends on how you perceive that characteristic individually.

We looked at those three categories of predictors, and we had a bunch of variables that have classically worked to predict job satisfaction that fit in those three domains. And the short version of that paper is, none of it worked out. Which was really weird, because we have years and years of research looking at what predicts whether somebody is satisfied with their job, and almost none of it held up in that context.

Pontz: In the context of the gig economy.

Brawley Newlin: Yeah, and specifically on MTurk. That was the first study I did, seeing if that pretty basic area of research that we think is somewhat established, if that applied, and it didn’t. Some things did show up, though.

We did see that, even though we couldn’t really predict job satisfaction, job satisfaction did predict turnover. So if somebody wasn’t happy on MTurk, they were leaving, which makes sense – you can quit as soon as you’re unhappy. That did hold up.

And we also found some other interesting data that we weren’t necessarily looking for, and that was that about 40% of the workers said that they considered MTurk their primary job. Which is, as a researcher concerned with understanding workers and ideally helping workers enjoy their job more, that’s kind of alarming, that this is 40% of MTurk workers’ primary source of income, or they’re considering it that. That was something I definitely wanted to follow up on.

But that was the first study, seeing that a lot of this stuff that we thought no longer worked quite the same in that setting. Some things hold up, but not everything like we expected.

Pontz: Specifically focusing for a second on that notion of peoples’ gig work being their primary work – I think that the term that gig economy comes up in, in politics, or even in popular discourse, is that the economy is changing towards more and more of these sort of gig jobs. Who are these people right now? Who are gig workers? What types of people are primarily doing these gig jobs, as opposed to a more traditional nine-to-five at an office, or in a factory, or something like that?

Brawley Newlin: That’s a big question a lot of people are trying to tackle right now. I would say there’s not, again, there’s not a settled answer. It depends on how you define gig work. Some people include only online platforms. Some people include things that also happen in person. Some people include all independent contractors, so anybody that is not an employee could technically fall into that definition.

And it varies a lot. But I would say, some patterns I’ve seen are that there tend to be more people that are not treating it as a gig. Because when we hear “gig” economy, we think it’s a side gig. It’s not your full job. There’s been some data that’s indicated that it’s more than we would think that are treating it as a full time job or trying to make it a full time job, which is, again, concerning as a researcher.

Then, there’s also other interesting patterns, like gig workers can tend to be older than you would expect. You might think that it’s young adults that are maybe working on the side while they’re in school. But instead, it tends to be older adults than you would think. People have seen averages, I believe, in the low 40s, when people have collected data on age. But again, it depends so much on the definition. Because if you’re thinking about all contractors, that can be people who run a consulting business. And if we’re thinking of those people as a gig worker, sure, they fit the definition. But that’s a very different idea than working on MTurk or driving for Uber.

Pontz: Right. I was reading where you referenced earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently came out with a report that said, they’re not really sure who the gig workers are, and the title-

Brawley Newlin: Yeah, and that data only came out two weeks ago. It is hot off the press!

Pontz: Yeah. It says, “Who’s a gig worker? Surgeons, bank executives, step forward.”

Brawley Newlin: Right.

Pontz: That’s not who I think most people think of when they think of their Uber driver. When you’re thinking about these gig workers, do you have the sense that people want to be gig workers? Is it that they enjoy the freedom, maybe, that there’s the notion of being your own boss? Do they enjoy that freedom, or is it that the existing more traditional jobs aren’t as plentiful as we might hope they are, so that people are forced into this type of work?

Brawley Newlin: There’s so many good directions we could go with this question. That’s a big question I’m working on next, actually. You asked, one of the questions was, what next. That’s one of the things I want to know, what is that dominant narrative? Is it that people are doing this because they’re thrilled at the idea of not having a schedule and not having a boss, or are they doing this because their full-time job isn’t cutting it, in terms of the pay, or they’re unable to find full-time work? And they’re more forced into it, instead of coming into it out of a choice? That’s a big question that I want data on.

I’m hoping to start collecting some data on that soon. For example, Uber advertises a lot with – their latest campaign is, “doors are open.” Like, this is an opportunity, this is a great thing. As a business, that makes sense for them. They want to draw people in with that “be your own boss, dream come true” kind of narrative. And I don’t know if that’s the case. That, of course, has a lot of implications for research. If people are doing this out of excitement for being their own boss, there’s, I think, a lot of cool things we could study about their engagement and their satisfaction, and the positives that they’re getting out of it.

If they’re coming into it out of need, then I think, in some ways, that warrants more attention and more concern, because we want to be able to support those workers or see what’s going on with them. What are the factors that we could maybe work with to increase their motivations, or to at least enhance their experience, so that they’re not forced into this job and sort of a human robot, in some ways? Kind of like on MTurk. That can be a sad day-to-day if that’s what you’re forced into doing.

Pontz: Right. Filling out surveys all day.

Brawley Newlin: Right.

Pontz: So, to what extent do labor regulations apply to these gig workers? I imagine that, from a policy perspective, there’s a lot of potential, at least, for abuses, and for, at least, a regulatory structure that isn’t caught up to the idea of people not working in a traditional job, whether it’s working from home or being not an actual employee, so to speak, of a company.

Brawley Newlin: That’s a big issue. One breakdown is based on our employment classification system in the US. You’re either an employee and you work for some company, that company is responsible for you, they take care of your tax withholding, they offer benefits at a lot of places, your healthcare is taken care of.

But the other category that we have in the US is that you’re an independent contractor. And that’s a very big, broad category, that includes gig workers. It includes people that we might not think of as gig workers, people who are consultants, people who run their own business… They have the freedom, but they also don’t have their protections. They don’t have any sort of health insurance embedded through an employer. Their tax situation is different. They’re paying taxes, both as a worker and as an employer, so they have more that they’re accountable for.

And there are some benefits to offset that, like that they can write off business expenses from their income. But it’s a very different situation. So, you get divided into these two very broad categories, and not everybody that is a gig worker wants to be an employee and wants all the things that come with that. But there is concern around providing those sort of social safety nets for gig workers. There are a lot of proposals, like universal basic income is one that has been experimented with, talked about a lot, and for a long time, too.

Pontz: Talk about what that is, in case people aren’t aware.

Brawley Newlin: Universal basic income, the general idea – and there are variations on it – the general idea is that you would receive some income, likely from a government entity as opposed to a private entity, and it would be a monthly rate or some fixed amount. And depending on the proposal, you can either work outside of that, or you would only get it if you don’t have other employment. One of the many concerns with that is that people would not then be motivated to go find work or to go do productive things with their lives. But there’s some interesting experiments going on to get some updated data about how that might work out.

Pontz: Yeah. Kind of thinking along those similar lines to benefits that workers have, do gig workers, are there ways that they can… Because in thinking about health insurance, for example, a lot of the ways that health insurance ends up economically working is that you pool peoples’ risks in these companies and such. But if you’re a gig worker, who’s not connected to a company, you’re kind of in the marketplace on your own. Are there ways that, I don’t want to say a gig workers’ union, but are there ways that they have thought about how to pool themselves into potentially getting benefits? How do gig workers get health insurance, I guess is the basic question there?

Brawley Newlin: I think it depends. You could go the private route, you can provide your own. That’s very costly, relative to an employer-sponsored plan. You could do things like organize, and there’s definitely some movements towards that for gig workers to become organized and get those sorts of protections, or organize for other purposes, as well.

There is recently – I believe it’s the Black Car Fund, which I’m not sure who sponsors that – but in NYC recently, made a proposal to offer some form of insurance to rideshare drivers. So, there are some private organizations that are trying to fill that gap. And there are certainly private organizations that are trying to come in and capitalize on that, because that’s an opportunity to come in and offer insurance tailored to gig economy workers.

Or there could be other solutions that are harder for us to measure at scale. There could be gig workers that have a spouse that has a full-time job, and so maybe they’re on that spousal insurance plan, and get covered that way. Or, they’re just unprotected.

Again, we keep coming up with concerns, and that’s a big one. The interesting thing, at least in the US, is that all the gig platforms are, I guess you might say de-incentivized, to provide health insurance or any other sort of employer-sponsored anything to gig workers. Because then they can be reclassified as employees, and all the other costs would then be triggered. It’s an interesting system, in terms of incentives. Because then, for example, Uber doesn’t want to provide these protections or offer these things, and then have other negatives come along with that, for them as an organization.

Pontz: Yeah, and kind of along those same lines, if there’s an industry in which one would have the option of either being a gig worker or an employee, are wages higher for gig workers, in some cases, that kind of offsets them not having benefits? Are there studies out, regarding how gig workers’ wages compare to other workers?

Brawley Newlin: Yes, but it’s complex. Because, for example, an Uber driver, they have an amount of money they make, but then they have to think about taxes. Their tax rate’s I believe about 30%.

Pontz: Self-employment tax.

Brawley Newlin: Right. It’s much higher. So the amount they’re making is not the amount they’re taking home. Then, beyond that, there’s also the costs to maintain your car, and to put gas in the car, and if you’re providing water to your riders – those sorts of costs are also rolled into it. So, everything that I’ve seen on that is, it’s a pretty complex calculation that goes into it. It’s not necessarily a simple comparison.

Pontz: Where is your research specifically going from here? You talked about that a little bit earlier, but what are you currently working on?

Brawley Newlin: Let’s see. I have several studies coming up. Generally, I feel like my approach in this area has been like, okay, this is an interesting question. Part of it doesn’t work, like with the job satisfaction study, and then you come up with also 15 new questions you want to look at.

Pontz: Right. Several ongoing projects, perhaps?

Brawley Newlin: Right, right, and they’re all follow ups from each other. So, a couple of different things that I’ve done since that job satisfaction study are to really follow up on figuring out why that didn’t work the way we thought it did, and follow up on some of the interesting data that we saw. One study I’ve done since then, that I’m working on writing up is, describing in a lot of depth what the experience of being an MTurk worker is like.

We have a lot of survey data and interview data that we are trying to compile. You know, what is the structure of this work like? What is it like to be an MTurk worker, in terms of the tasks you’re doing and choosing from? And what sort of skills are required by that? That way, then we can work from that more basic description to, hopefully, some other results that work out, unlike the job satisfaction study. So, maybe we can uncover other factors that matter for job satisfaction, for example, out of that more basic description.

One that I’m really interested in is, going back to that estimate of 40% of workers considering MTurk their primary job. That was crazy high. That was much higher than we expected to see in that study, especially on that platform. You would think these are people that are just doing a survey on the side, getting a couple of cents extra here and there. So, I followed up on that one with some experimental data, looking at how you word the question, and if you word the question differently – “is this your primary job,” or “are you reliant on this job,” or “do you consider this your job”? – very subtle wording differences, and are we getting different estimates as a result of that?

So, was my estimate really high because of the way I worded the question? I wanted to look at the experimental side of it, but also the objective side. Now I have data on different item wording, as well as the characteristics of the workers. Is it, for example, the number of hours you’re working, or is it the item wording that’s predicting whether you actually say yes to that question?

And that’s a big thing that came up also in the BLS data, that you said that you had taken a look at as well. They edited some new questions in to ask about platform-based work and electronically mediated work, which is really exciting for people in my research area. We were like, yes, we’re going to get BLS data! Then it took them a really long time to release it, because they realized that people were interpreting the question differently. Where you saw the article about vice presidents and… What were the other jobs?

Pontz: Bankers and surgeons and executives.

Brawley Newlin: Right, they were all saying yes, that they were gig workers. So, there’s definitely this big issue of how we ask the question, even that subtle detail really matters for getting a grip on the size of the economy, as a whole, and on the portion of those gig workers who are really relying on it for their income. That’s sort of a methodological approach to that one, taking a look at that.

Then the big question that I’m working on is the question of the narrative. Are these people who – and this is focusing specifically among rideshare drivers –  are these people doing this out of choice and because they want to be their own boss, and live their dreams, and drive for Uber? Or, are they doing it out of need, because they’re driving on the side? There are cases of primary school teachers driving in the summer, because their teaching income is not… up to par.

Pontz: …sufficient, yeah.

Brawley Newlin: Again, that’s sort of a basic question that we need to settle before we can decide what the other variables are that we need to study. A lot of it is kind of stripping things down to start over with what we think we know.

Pontz: It sounds like this research field, as a whole, is kind of in its infancy, in many respects.

Brawley Newlin: Yeah, there’s definitely more coming out every month, which is exciting, though it makes it a little tough to keep up with everything. There’s certainly more and more coming out. But it is an area definitely ripe for more people to study. For example, it’s been really great here at Gettysburg, I teach a class on the gig economy and pretty much anything my students can come up with hasn’t been studied yet, or we have very little so far on those topics, in this work setting.

Pontz: Yeah. That certainly is an exciting opportunity for, I guess, undergraduate students to be asking questions that professional researchers are still asking and haven’t answered yet.

I guess the last question I would have is, when we think about the broader narrative that has come up around the gig economy, that it’s a revolution on the horizon, do you think that that’s the case? It sounds like, based on what we’ve talked about, that there’s a lot more nuance to figuring out what exactly a gig worker is, and what types of industries that this is happening it. But when you look at the big picture of the gig economy, what do you see as its current state, and where it’s going in the future? Just a nice, easy question to end on.

Brawley Newlin: I think it’s a great question. Again, going back to that BLS data that just got released. They came to the conclusion that it’s about 1% of the US workforce doing electronically mediated work. I think it’s 1.6 million workers and about the size of Walmart’s workforce. So, it’s certainly not nothing. But when that data and the wave of data before it came out from BLS, it was… There was a lot of hype around it within the gig economy research field.

But then, when the data came out, it was kind of a big surprise, because they found that the data essentially hadn’t changed since 2005, in terms of the number of gig workers, including contract workers, including short-term workers, hadn’t changed very much over that time. And we like to think, and we hear this story all the time, that the gig economy has exploded, and it’s taking over, and there are no full-time jobs, but the data doesn’t show that.

So, we don’t know necessarily whether that’s a measurement issue. Are we asking the questions in a tricky way? Are we not capturing what’s going on? Or, is it really just a change in how it happens? I think it’s more the latter. I think, this is not new, but now we have apps. So, maybe it’s more visible.

Pontz: It’s a consciousness thing?

Brawley Newlin: Yeah, possibly. There are certainly lots of examples of this going back hundreds of years. People have been piecing together employment for a really long time. And one of the best examples I’ve read is actually a court case from 1944, and it was about employment classification, going back to that issue of employee versus independent contractor. And it was for newspaper delivery boys, and they were struggling with the same thing in 1944.

So, it’s the same thing that’s been going on for a long time. And maybe something will change now, because we have more people that seem to be paying attention to it, and maybe, possibly more people participating in it. But I think it’s just that the big shift is the technological element. You work for an app, or you work for an algorithm. And to me, that’s the big change. So, I don’t know necessarily that it’s really taking over, but I do think there are a lot of important changes to how work happens that are going on.

Pontz: And I imagine you’ll continue to look into those changes for some years to come. Dr. Alice Brawley Newlin, thanks so much for joining us.

Brawley Newlin: Thank you, Ben.

Pontz: That’s On Target for this week. We’d like to thank Dr. Alice Brawley Newlin for being our featured guest today.

Gauri Mangala: We’d also like to thank the staff of the Gettysburgian and the Executive Board of WZBT for their ongoing support in this project. Be sure to subscribe to On Target on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

Pontz: On Target is a joint production of the Gettysburgian and WZBT. Our theme music was composed by Diego Rocha, a music major in the Sunderman Conservatory of Music. Be sure to join us next week. Until then, have a good week.