The Unemployment Numbers are Wrong

May 03, 2013

The new unemployment numbers came out today. Everybody’s talking about them.

They’re moving stock markets, coloring consumer spending and probably influencing economic policy as we speak.

So, what do these numbers really measure?

The surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics basically ask, in a hundred different ways, “Do you have a job or don’t you?”

But that’s just not the way people work anymore.

If you’re a freelancer with a week or two in between gigs, are you employed or unemployed? It’s not so cut and dry.

Work is changing rapidly. We’re moving from gigs to micro-gigs, as I wrote in The Atlantic last month:

We're seeing a surge in companies that enable professionals to hire themselves out for ever smaller jobs. Some are so short-term, they can hardly be called gigs.
TaskRabbit has created a marketplace for just that -- tasks. Putting together Ikea furniture is one of the site's most popular listings. How much does it pay? An average of $42 per project. (If you've ever spent an entire evening trying to put together an Ikea dresser, you might consider that an incredible deal.)
Welcome to the micro-gig.
This goes beyond straightforward freelancing. Micro-gigs mean people are breaking up their day into little units, creating hyper efficiency for employers, who are paying only for a specific task.
Work is being stripped down to the bone.

The employment numbers don’t reflect reality, because they don’t measure work if it’s broken up into smaller chunks.

At last count in 2005, more than 42 million workers identified themselves as independent workers, or freelancers.

That means that more than one-third of the workforce operates in the gig economy, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics isn’t counting them.

So when the entire political, economic and media worlds come to a halt at 8:00 a.m. on the first Friday of the month awaiting the unemployment numbers, what are they really getting?

(I talked about the jobs numbers this morning on Bloomberg TV. Video here and below.)

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.