The Geometry of a Wave


Young workers and the “gig economy”

The emergence of companies like Uber and Taskrabbit has prompted commentators across legal, economic, and policy research spheres to pronounce the beginning of a new era of work, marked by the prevalence of technologically mediated casual work arrangements.

A new report published by AARON MEDLIN and HYE JIN RHO at the Center for Economic and Policy Research casts doubt on these bold claims. Using data from the BLS 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement, it analyzes the preponderance of nonstandard work arrangements for workers between the ages of 21 and 25.

From the report:

“A majority of young workers, ages 21–25, with and without a college degree, are in standard work arrangements. Between 2005 and 2017, the share of young workers in standard work arrangements with a college degree increased from 94.1 to 95.4 percent. Contrary to common expectations, young workers are more likely to hold such jobs compared to the workforce as a whole. Furthermore, data from BLS show that only 1.0 percent of young workers engaged in electronically mediated (gig) work in May 2017.

The much-hyped growth of the gig economy cannot be found in the 2017 survey of nonstandard work arrangements. Even young workers overwhelmingly opted for employment in traditional jobs. Most pressing are the problems of low wages, lack of benefits, and less than full-time hours for all workers without a college degree, but especially young workers without a college degree. These are the labor market policy issues that should be on the table.”

Link to the report.

  • In an earlier report co-authored by CEPR and EPI, Eileen Appelbaum, Arne Kalleberg, and Hye Jin Rho analyze the degree of nonstandard employment for older workers, aged 55-65 and 65+: “Older workers are more likely to be independent contractors than any other age group in both 2005 and 2017. However, the share of all older workers who are independent contractors declined from 10.8% of those ages 55–64 and 18.3% of those ages 65+ in 2005, to 9.3% and 16.2%, respectively, in 2017.” Link.
  • “In any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary.” Lawrence Mishel’s 2018 analysis found that Uber wages averaged $11.77 an hour, and that total hours worked in the gig economy “represent a very small share of total hours worked in the overall economy.” Link.
  • While part time, temporary, and casual labor may be declining, work induced precarity remains a prominent feature of the contemporary global landscape. For a substantive overview of the nature and development of precarious work, see Guy Standing’s 2011 book, The Precariat. Link.

New Researchers: EQUAL DIVIDE

Land distribution and the Great Divergence

PhD Candidate YUZURU KUMON’s job market paper draws on village-level data of Ancient Japan to engage with longstanding debates over the origins of the industrial revolution. By 1700, wealth distribution in England was highly unequal, with 70% of the rural population landless. By contrast, landless peasants only accounted for 13% of the rural population in Japan. Unusually, Kumon argues that greater equality in Japanese society restrained demands for higher wages, thereby accounting in part for the country’s failure to industrialize.

From the introduction:

“Early modern Japan had a peculiar Malthusian equilibrium where wages were below subsistence level. The population of the poor were decreasing. Population was propped up by a sufficient number of land-rich households whose population growth kept total population in equilibrium. Over the long-run, highly equal land distribution led Japan to develop on the path of a labor abundant economy with low wages, low GDP per capita, and high population as its key features. However, the low wages did not preclude Japan from developing economically. Rather, technologies were developing on a labor intensive path.

What were the fundamental causes that led early modern Japan to become such an equal society? A first likely factor is inheritance and adoption. In the pre-industrial world, the number of heirs were randomly determined due to a combination of fertility and mortality. However, Japanese households practiced adoption which assured that richer households had at least one heir, effectively hedging against this risk. A second likely factor is the re-distributive power of the village council. In early modern Japan, the village as a whole was responsible for paying taxation. The village council was always concerned with keeping the village land-labor ratio at a optimal level.”

Link to the paper, and to Kumon’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • At the Phenomenal World, JFI’s Stephen Nuñez and Sara Constantino interview the immensely influential sociologist Mark Granovetter, author of one of the most cited social science papers of all time: “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Link to the interview.
  • A new study by Amy Finkelstein, Nathaniel Hendren, and Mark Shepard finds that “even modest premiums are a major deterrent to universal coverage: subsidies as high as 75% still result in less than half of the eligible population enrolling.” Link.
  • Scott Lynch and Bryce Bartlett review the history of Bayesianism in social science research. Link.
  • From research group Aqueduct, a series of tools mapping water risk around the world, including risk levels for flood, drought, and water stress. Link. See also this NYT article on severe drought risk worldwide.
  • A new CBO working paper by Yiqun Gloria Chen on the relationship between inflation and expectations. Link. And link to coverage at Bloomberg: “It turns out Wall Street can get a better handle on the inflation outlook by trusting ordinary Americans.”
  • Adam Tooze in the LRB on the history of the SPD and its role in the current political crises of Germany. Link.
  • “Supercentenarians and the oldest-old are concentrated into regions with no birth certificates and short lifespans. In the United States, supercentenarian status is predicted by the absence of vital registration.” Link.
  • In a new paper, Naomi Lamoreaux “sets recent expressions of alarm about the monopoly power of technology giants such as Google and Amazon in the long history of Americans’ response to big business.” Link.
  • Trump’s HUD has proposed regulations under which “a company accused of discrimination would be able ‘defeat’ that claim if an algorithm is involved. A hypothetical bank that rejected every loan application filed by African Americans and approved every one filed by white people, for example, would need to prove only that race or a proxy for it was not used directly in constructing its computer model.” Link.
  • “Shocks to firm productivity are passed on as variation in worker wages. The variation is high for high-skilled workers. Unskilled workers, perhaps due to union or minimum wage protection, experience smaller fluctuations.” Link.
  • On Ken Opalo’s Africanist Perspective: the future of taxation, on Russia’s “real-time” tax collection scheme. Link. And link to FT coverage of the same.
  • “Conditions of material scarcity and the potential for profit thrust both foreign and Spanish coastal inhabitants into vast networks of illegal commerce. This project focuses specifically on the illicit slave trade and Afro-Caribbean contrabandists, the material culture of smuggled goods in Venezuelan daily life, and violent colonial opposition to anti-contraband strictures through several mid-eighteenth century trade uprisings. Smugglers’ shadowy existence between empires revises our understanding of interimperial contact, local identity formation, commercial autonomy, and popular protest in the early modern world. In its complicated and criminal nature, covert commerce also connects large structural shifts in the burgeoning eighteenth-century global economy to local petty traders.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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