Thursday, October 22, 2015

22/10/15: Gig Economy and Human Capital: Evidence from Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment

In a couple of weeks, I will be speaking about the role of human capital in the emergence of the new economy at the CXC Corporate event “Globalization & The Future of Work Summit” in Dublin.

Without preempting what I am going to say, here are some key points of interest.

Human capital-centric growth is overlapping, but distinct from the so-called “Gig Economy”, primarily because of the different definition of what constitutes two respective workforces.

Take, for example, the U.S. data. Based on research by the American Action Forum by Rinehart and Gitis (2015) we can define three types of the broadly-speaking “Gig Economy” workers: “For our most narrow measurement of gig workers (labeled Gig 1) we simply include independent contractors, consultants, and freelancers. Our middle measurement (Gig 2) includes all Gig 1 workers plus temp agency workers and on-call workers. Our broadest measurement (Gig 3) includes all Gig 2 workers plus contract company workers.”

The respective numbers engaged in three categories in 2014 range between 20.5 million and 29.7 million with growth rates over the recent years outpacing economy-wide jobs expansion rates across all categories of the Gig Economy workers.

Still, the key problem with identifying underlying trends in the development of the Gig Economy is the lack of data on specifics of occupational choices of the self-employed individuals and the relationship between these choices and human capital held by the Gig Economy participants relative to the traditional employees.

To see the indicators of links between the Gig Economy and human capital, we have to look at the more established literature concerning transition to entrepreneurship.

One interesting set of studies here comes from the Italian Survey of Household Income and Wealth (SHIW), a large biannual household survey conducted by the Banca d’Italia. A 2007 paper by Federici, Ferrante and Vistocco looked at the links between institutional structures, technological innovation and human capital in determining the propensity to transition from employment to entrepreneurship. Looking at the general literature on the subject, the authors state that “…institutions are more important than technology (i.e., technological specialization and/or industry composition) in fostering or restricting entrepreneurship and that the interactions between institutions and occupational choices may be complex and non linear”. The authors caution against directly linking self-employment rates with entrepreneurship rates, as “countries displaying the same self-employment rates, might be endowed with very different amounts and qualities of entrepreneurial skills devoted to innovation and business ventures (or, on the other hand, they might not)”.

To better pinpoint the link between entrepreneurship, self-employment and the institutional and technological drivers for risk taking, Federici, Ferrante and Vistocco augment the survey data with a set of variables describing the social and institutional environment in which self-employed and traditional workers are operating. Crucially, “in addition to standard indexes of economic and social infrastructure at the local level, [the authors] include a measure of creativity developed by Florida (2004).”

The conclusions are strong: “in Italy, both institutional and technological factors have shaped entrepreneurial opportunities requiring, tacit knowledge embedded in social networks and in the cultural background of families… Hence, well-educated people lacking privileged access to tacit knowledge and, in particular, an appropriate family background, could find themselves up against a considerable barrier to entrepreneurship and occupational mobility.” In simple terms, the Gig Economy-related value added can and should be considered within the context of family and cultural institutions as much as technological enablement environment.

As per traditional metrics of human capital, the study conclusions appear to be contradicting the core literature on entrepreneurship. “The evidence of the highly significant negative role of education in entrepreneurial selection is very strong in comparison with the majority of international studies showing that education has either a positive impact (Blanchflower, 1998) or a statistically non-significant effect on occupational choices”. In other words, formal education seems to be more conducive to employment choices in traditional environments (e.g. full time jobs),w it exception, perhaps, of professional skills-based activities.

The negative links between education and propensity to engage in entrepreneurial activity is, however, in line with other Italian study based on the same data, authored by Sabatini (2006).

However, U.S. data-based studies frequently find existence of a U-shaped relationship between income and propensity to transition to self-employment, with highest propensities concentrated around low income earners and high income earners, while lower propensities occurring for middle income earners. One recent example of this evidence is Moutray (2007). In so far as formal education is an instrument for income, especially for sub-populations excluding very high income earners, this suggests that the negative relationship between self-employment and education found in the case of Italy can be culturally conditioned and does not translate to other economies.

Another interesting aspect of transition to the ‘Gig Economy’ relating to the links between human capital and creativity or cultural institutions was uncovered by a 2011 paper by Mitra and Abubakar who looked at data from the Local Authority Districts of Thames Gateway South Essex (TGSE) in East of England. The study attempted “to explore and identify key determinants of business formation in Knowledge Intensive sectors (which include the creative industries) of regions outside the major metropolitan conurbations, and their possible differences with other Non-Intensive Sectors.”

The authors found that human capital is “positively correlated with new business entry in Knowledge intensive sectors”, but at the same time, it is “negatively correlated with new startups in non-knowledge intensive sectors”. Per authors: “This finding suggests that while entrepreneurship in knowledge based and creative industries requires highly skilled labour, in non knowledge based industries, low skilled labour is the primary determinant of new firm creation. Our findings also appear to suggest the need for higher skills/educated base in order to boost the growth of new businesses” in high knowledge-intensity sectors.

Werner and Moog (2009) use data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) to map out significant linkages between entrepreneurial learning (and entrepreneurial human capital) and the probability of transition from traditional employment to self-employment. One interesting aspect of their findings is that learning-by-doing occurring (in their sample) during tenure of working for an SME has positive impact on ability to transition to entrepreneurship, confirming similar findings from other European countries. This also confirms findings that show that working for SMEs results in more frequent exits into self-employment and that such exits more frequently result in transition to full entrepreneurship than for self-employment entered from employment in larger firms.

The learning-by-doing effect of pre-transition experience for starting entrepreneurs and self-employed is also confirmed by the UK study by Panos, Pouliakas and Zangelidis (2011) who looked at the self-employment transition dynamics for individuals with dual job-holding and the links between this transition and human capital and occupational choice between primary and secondary jobs. The study used a wide (1991-2005) sample of UK employees from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). The authors investigated, sequentially, “first, the determinants of multiple job-holding, second, the factors affecting the occupational choice of a secondary job, third, the relationship between multiple-job holding and job mobility and, lastly, the spillover effects of multiple job-holding on occupational mobility between primary jobs.” The findings indicate that “dual job-holding may facilitate job transition, as it may act as a stepping-stone towards new primary jobs, particularly self-employment.” An interesting aspect of the study is that whilst the major effects are present in the lower skilled distribution of occupations, there is also a significant and positive effect of dual-jobs holding on transition to self-employment for professional (highly skilled) grade of workers.

Finally, there is a very interesting demographic dimension to transition to self-employment, explored to some extent in the U.S. data by Zhang (2008). The paper focused on the topic of elderly entrepreneurship. The author conjectures that in modern (ageing) demographic setting, “the “knowledge economy” could elevate the value of elderly human capital as the “knowledge economy” is less physically demanding and more human-capital- and knowledge-based.” Zhang (2008) largely finds that professional, skills-based self-employment and entrepreneurship amongst the older generations of workers can act as an important force in reducing adverse impact of ageing on modern economies.

The common thread connecting the above studies and indeed the rest of the vast literature on entrepreneurship, self-employment and transition from traditional employment to more projects-based or client-focused forms of engagement in the labour markets is increasingly shifting toward the first type of the ‘Gig Economy’ engagement. This typology of the ‘Gig Economy’ is becoming more human capital and skills-intensive and is better aligned with the ‘knowledge economy’ and the ‘creative economy’ than ever before. In simple terms, therefore, the ‘Gig Economy’ not only reaches deeper than the traditional view of the shared services (Uber et al) growth trends suggest.

While both increasing in importance and broadening the set of opportunities for economic development, the modern ‘Gig Economy’ is presenting significant challenges to social, cultural and policy norms that require swift addressing. These challenges are broadly linked to the need to Create, Attract, Retain and Enable key human capital necessary to sustain long term development and growth of the ‘Gig Economy’.

With that, tune in to my talk at the CXC Corporate event “Globalization & The Future of Work Summit” (link: in few weeks time for the details as to what should be done to put global ‘Gig Economy’ onto the sustainable development and growth track.


Will Rinehart, Ben Gitis, “Independent Contractors and the Emerging Gig Economy” July 29, 2015,

Federici, Daniela and Ferrante, Francesco and Vistocco, Domenico, "On the Sources of Entrepreneurial Talent in Italy: Tacit vs. Codified Knowledge" (July 24, 2007)

Sabatini, Fabio, "Educational Qualification, Work Status and Entrepreneurship in Italy: An Exploratory Analysis" (June 2006). FEEM Working Paper No. 87.2006

Velamuri, S. Ramakrishna and Venkataraman, S., "An Empirical Study of the Transition from Paid Work to Self-Employment". Journal of Entrepreneurial Finance and Business Ventures, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 1-16, August 2005

Moutray, Chad M., "Educational Attainment and Other Characteristics of the Self-Employed: An Examination Using Data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics" (December 11, 2007). Hudson Institute Research Paper No. 07-06.

Mitra, Jay and Abubakar, Yazid, "Entrepreneurial Growth and Labour Market Dynamics: Spatial Factors in the Consideration of Relevant Skills and Firm Growth in the Creative, Knowledge-Based Industries" (August 23, 2011). University of Essex CER Working Paper No. 1.

Werner, Arndt and Moog, Petra M., "Why Do Employees Leave Their Jobs for Self-Employment? – The Impact of Entrepreneurial Working Conditions in Small Firms" (November 1, 2009).

Panos, Georgios A. and Pouliakas, Konstantinos and Zangelidis, Alexandros, "Multiple Job Holding as a Strategy for Skills Diversification and Labour Market Mobility" (August 23, 2011). University of Essex CER Working Paper No. 4.

Zhang, Ting, "Elderly Entrepreneurship in an Aging U.S. Economy: It's Never Too Late" (September 8, 2008). Series on Economic Development and Growth, Vol. 2.

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