Still, the data left many economists perplexed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for budgetary reasons, had not conducted its survey of alternative work since 2005. But in 2015, the economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger conducted their own survey that tried to mirror the bureau’s methodology. They found that alternative work was more common — and growing far more quickly — than the data released on Thursday suggests.
Economists offered various explanations for the discrepancy. One possibility is that the boom in gig-type jobs was real but that as the economy has improved, more people have been able to find traditional work. Part-time work, which surged in the recession, has fallen in the recovery, and employment by temporary-help services has leveled off. If true of alternative work more broadly, that would suggest that what many commenters interpreted as a structural shift in the economy was instead a temporary result of a weak labor market.
It is also possible that the new data understates real changes in the nature of work. The government’s standard tools for measuring employment have struggled to capture the shifting employment landscape. For example, the Current Population Survey, the monthly survey used to calculate the unemployment rate and other key measures, shows that self-employment is falling, even as tax data from the Internal Revenue Service has shown the opposite.
“The questions on our standard surveys don’t probe into the nature of these arrangements,” said Katharine G. Abraham, a University of Maryland economist who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics under President Bill Clinton. “We’re not asking the right questions, and they’re hard to answer anyway.”
The bureau’s data comes from an add-on to the Current Population Survey intended to fill in some of those gaps. But it has shortcomings. The extra questions, for example, were asked only of people considered “employed” in the standard survey. That might leave out people who earn income through activities that they do not see as a job, such as selling products online or working erratically as a freelancer.
Professor Abraham said there was evidence that workers struggled to accurately report and classify work that did not fall neatly into traditional buckets. Some Uber drivers, for example, might consider themselves employees of the ride-sharing company, even though legally classified as independent contractors. Some workers in an Amazon warehouse might report being employees of the e-commerce giant, even if technically employed by an outside staffing firm.
Professor Abraham and other experts said, however, that if there had been a big rise in alternative work, it should have shown up in the latest survey. The fact that it did not, they said, suggested that any shift had been relatively modest.