Who’s got a side hustle? Postgrads and people earning $80,000 or more

A new survey indicates that a surprising number of Americans have second jobs in some form or another. Even more unexpected: Many of those people like their side gigs better than their actual jobs.

According to a new survey commissioned by Bankrate.com, more than one in four respondents who have a secondary source of income said they are “more passionate” about that work than their primary job or career track, a number that jumps to 40 percent for 18-to-22-year-olds.

Bankrate.com analyst Amanda Dixon said a clash between expectations and reality regarding pay could be driving some of the side job activity. “A lot of people maybe go into their jobs with certain expectations… especially when it comes to salaries. A lot of people might not have the salary that they’d like to have,” she said.

Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, also suggested this could, in part, reflect younger workers coming to grips with the idea that they can’t land a “dream job” that reflects their hobbies and personal interests and might have to settle for one that pays the bills. “There could be a little bit of expectational formation,” he said. “We just got through the worst recession since the Great Depression and people are still scared. The idea of leaving your job to go chase your dreams isn’t a safe bet,” he said.

This is reflected in the sheer number of people who say they do extra work of some kind. Bankrate found that nearly half of Americans in the workforce today — and 38 percent of all respondents — say they supplement their primary source of income. Among Americans in the workforce, that number rises to 43 percent of full-time workers and 51 percent of part-time workers.

“I was surprised to see that the number was that high. I think it really speaks to where we are right now,” Dixon said.

Roughly half of secondary-income earners told surveyors that technology plays a major role in their income-earning potential. Harry Holzer, a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, said this isn’t necessarily attributable to the rise of mobile apps like Uber and TaskRabbit that have come to serve as proxies for the gig economy.

“Some of these are what we call gig economy positions, some are not,” he said. “For all of the time we’ve spent talking about gig economy and independent contractors, this might be a bigger phenomenon than that.”

Estimates about the size of the so-called gig economy vary widely, in part because of the different ways these workers are defined. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, determined that only about 1 percent of the workforce relies on app-based platforms like Uber to earn their income — but labor economists point out this doesn’t capture people who use these tools as a secondary income stream or who find side work through other channels.

Bankrate’s survey reflects this, finding that a large number of highly educated, comparatively wealthy Americans take on side work: 43 percent of people with annual household incomes of $80,000 or higher, and 47 percent of those with postgraduate degrees, have a secondary source of income.

“There’s a top end of the market, knowledge workers who have the experience and skills… They get a lot of their work through referrals rather than online apps,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at hiring software company iCIMS. Wright said his firm’s research found that fewer than 20 percent of this class of workers used mobile apps to find work, while about two-thirds relied on personal relationships or referrals.

Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggested that Bankrate’s findings reflect a bifurcation that is occurring across the labor market overall, with lower-income and less-educated Americans pursuing extra income through short-term contract work, while better-educated, better-compensated workers can use their advanced degrees and professional networks to get work consulting, teaching, or designing on the side.

“The term gig economy is used too cavalierly. We’ve always had people working on the side to make money. The idea of ‘gig’ has been attached to this platform economy [because] it glamorizes this thing,” Kalleberg said. “That’s part of the lure or PR of these kinds of platforms,” he said.

“I’m not surprised that people need to have money in addition to their regular earnings. There has been wage stagnation in recent years, especially for people in the middle and working classes.”

For many of these users, Kalleberg said the reality is likely to be far less rosy, with little if any job protections or benefits available — and earnings that may fall short of expectations. People who earn less than $30,000 a year spend a median of 10 hours a week working their side jobs, twice as much as those who earn $80,000 and up. Their monthly earnings for this work, though, comes to an average of just under $280, compared to roughly $1,390 for the highest earners.

Roughly 30 percent of respondents, and 45 percent of those with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, said they work at side jobs because they need the money to pay for basic living expenses. Kalleberg said this indicates that there is a segment of American households that didn’t reap the benefits of the economic recovery.

“I’m not surprised that people need to have money in addition to their regular earnings from their main job. There has been wage stagnation in recent years, especially for people in the middle and working classes,” he said.

The silver lining is that a sizable minority — about one in four across all income brackets — works side jobs so they can save more money. Even among respondents earning less than $30,000 a year, 18 percent said their secondary income was earmarked for savings.

Since many Americans lack sufficient savings — recent Federal Reserve research found that roughly 40 percent of people wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency expense with cash on hand — Dixon said the focus on savings is a positive sign. “It’s good to see people are trying to change that,” she said. “We definitely encourage people to make saving a priority.”

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