Part Three: Themes Among Gig Economy Workers

This is part three in a series about our research in partnership with JUST, an Austin-based nonprofit that seeks to build resilient communities through financial inclusion. For Part Two:  Researching The New American Dream with the Gig Economy go here.

Our Focus

We’ve continued to refine our focus to understand how the resiliency and values of on-demand gig economy workers impact their goals and financial decisions. We’re thinking of this with respect to understanding how the gig economy is supporting a “New American Dream” – one that values flexibility and freedom over stability. 

What is the on-demand gig economy?

Technology platforms that fulfill user demand with immediate access to goods and services. Examples include rideshare, food delivery, grocery delivery, scooters, household chores, pet services

Our fourteen participants work across a variety of platforms, for a myriad of reasons. For some, gig work is supplemental to a full-time job; for others it provides income during a transition period between jobs. The work can help them achieve specific goals, make ends meet, or provide flexibility to pursue other endeavors.


Patterns emerged through the contextual interviews we conducted which were aimed at understanding the mindset and behaviors participants have related to gig work, decision making, and personal value systems. 

Here are two of those themes and some of the stories that supported those themes.

I have a lot of unrealized potential. 

Of the gig economy workers we spoke with, one of the most common themes that we heard was a perception of having unrealized potential. Whether they were enjoying gig work or just doing it to survive, most had a nagging feeling that they were capable of much more professionally. They aspired to careers as varied as a doctor, musician, social media celebrity, Salesforce admin, entrepreneur, substance abuse counselor, and were all at various stages of realizing those ambitions.


Leo is 20 years old. On the day we spoke with him, he’d just completed his first two deliveries with Favor. He needed to earn gas money so he could drive his belongings from his parent’s home in Cedar Park to a house in south Austin where he would be moving in with his brother. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 2.47.20 PMLeo sorted his cards, rapid fire, in two piles. For someone who said he didn’t feel confident enough, he certainly attacked the activities with gusto. 

When we asked Leo to build out a dream web, he quickly drew three circles shooting out from the center. Stability feels like a relatively new concept to him, as a young man striking out in the world, trying out jobs to see what suits him. He takes classes, on occasion, at ACC but his real passion is the gym. “I’m just trying to get shredded. Super shredded. I just take off my shirt and I can see everything. I want that.”

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The oblong circle at the bottom of the page remained empty and when we asked after that he paused, looked at us, and said, “Since I love the gym so much and I feel like something’s been telling me that I can get famous, for real. I don’t know if you get those feelings, but something’s been telling me that I can possibly get famous. I don’t know. It’s just been in the back of my head.” 

Leo’s goal is to start a YouTube channel where he can chronicle fitness routines and inspire others to do the same. Leo spoke about the confidence he gained over time. He’s been working out regularly for the past four years and this commitment is an accomplishment he’s proud of. At the same time, he expressed uncertainty about taking the next step. The potential he sees in himself feels stymied by the gap between an idea and the making of it. “I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to tell you what you have to do in order [to get in shape]… I’m not where I want to be. But I know I have enough knowledge. I just haven’t done it. I just haven’t done the work, but I just have it all here.”

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 2.49.00 PMFuture goals.  

Leo often turns to YouTube or Instagram to learn how to work out properly. Growing up with the digital age, he uses these platforms to hone his craft, find inspiration, and connect with like minded people. “I saw this YouTube video of this guy talking about his life. He said, ‘Your twenties are the most important age because that’s when you’re a money making machine.’ I liked that video. It motivated me.” For Leo, his potential is an immediate opportunity to seize on. 


Tracy recently moved from College Station where she earned a masters degree in biomedical science at Texas A&M. She’s working at a car dealership and needs to sell fifteen cars each month to cover her expenses which include a $2300 rent and over $200,000 in student loans. We asked if she’d looked into finding work in her field but she wants to go back to school and is looking to make the most money so she can afford those next steps. “I was the secretary at a medical school when I decided I’m tired of doing shitty jobs…There were kids there [in their second year] that didn’t know as much as I did. Surely, I’d have a shot at getting into medical school.” 

3 - blog Tracy

Growing up in foster care, she hasn’t had the safety net that many of her peers did. She went from living in a homeless shelter to living in a college dorm. Tracy spoke about wanting to be part of the middle class – something that felt just within reach but unattainable at the same time. “I’m 34, I don’t have a house, I’ve never been able to afford a new car. By most people’s standards I work a shitty job. Dangit. If nothing else I want to know how to break into the middle class club. How can I be like that? Why does everything have to be so difficult?” For Tracy, the potential is there but the access is not. 


Travis likes that he can read New Yorkers all day at his full time job at the laundromat but he doesn’t always get paid on time, and his manager lives in Houston. When we met him, he was picking up Favor gigs to keep him afloat until he hopefully gets paid. Not getting paid isn’t the only thing he dislikes about his job. He also feels like he is not living up to his potential while working in that role. “The laundromat job, I feel like a robot could do that. And I just feel useless there. I like jobs where I feel like I’m making a difference in the community and helping people.” 

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 2.49.35 PMPaychecks can be a moving target.

Travis moved to Austin when he was 17 ½. He struggles with a stutter and social anxiety – impediments that felt too great in high school so he homeschooled his way to the end of it. He scours job listings on Craigslist and thinks about going back to school as a way to get access to jobs that would be more fulfilling. “Most of the job listings say you have to have a degree in something. I want a better job, where I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and helping in the community.” 

He recently sent $500 to his Mom to help with a medical bill. She was a stay at home parent and has been struggling financially since his father passed away six years ago. It’s always been weighing on me because she helped me a lot with money when I was 19. I want to make sure she’s happy and comfortable now, because she’s dealing with a lot of health stuff. I’m constantly thinking of ways to send her more money.” He hopes that once he has a more stable source of income he can better support the people who have supported him throughout his life.

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 5.20.50 PMTravis’ dream web includes making a beautiful record, school, having a good career path. 

I avoid thinking about consequences because they seem outside my control.

An assumption that we were interested in validating was that gig workers would be naive to the risks and costs associated with their work, and thus were not effectively taking those into account when deciding to do gig work. What we found was much more nuanced than just simple naivete. Gig workers told us that they were acutely aware of risks and costs associated with the work that they were doing, and actively avoided thinking about those negative consequences as a survival tactic. The cognitive and emotional load of considering these factors was more than they were willing to bear.

Melissa, a Lyft driver in her 60s who has been driving several days a week for the last two and a half years to her supplement social security income. She told us that there were several things that she was actively avoiding thinking about: retirement, getting into an accident, and the risks involved with inviting strangers in her car. When we asked her for specifics about her plans to retire or contingencies plans for car trouble down she either changed the subject or pointedly told us she did not want to think about those things. 

“I try not to [think about getting into an accident]. There’s so many things to worry about. I try not to put them at the forefront of my thoughts. It’s just like being scared of your passengers. You sit around and think about that all day, you’re going to get pretty frightened, whether there’s a reason or not.” She was purposefully deciding to not think about the risks she faced working as a contractor and not being covered by an employer’s liability insurance or workman’s comp insurance.

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We also heard from Holly, an Uber driver who was working hard to maintain her optimism in the face of a assuming risks with high consequences as a driver. She told us,  “Good thing [insurance is] covered by–I don’t know how it works, actually. I’m making a lot of assumptions. And I haven’t looked into it. I don’t want to know. I’m gambling. I’m gambling with it honestly.” She was afraid that finding out more about her situation would lead to more stress in an already unpredictable work environment. To not know, and to avoid thinking about not knowing, allowed her to opt into an “ignorance is bliss” mindset.

We also saw gig workers that were not just avoiding thinking, but also avoiding doing. Joey is a gig worker who does deliveries for Favor. When we asked him if he sets aside money to pay self-employment taxes on his income from gig work he told us, “I’m supposed to, but no. I haven’t done my taxes for a long time. I just don’t think about that. I don’t put no energy into it.” 

He always paid income tax when he had been an employee, but paying the taxes he owed as a contractor didn’t seem worth it given how little he was making. He knew that the government would likely track him down and make him pay eventually, but that is a problem he plans to address later when he has more income. “I’ll have to deal with it when the time comes. As of right now, I have not been being disciplined and sticking that money to the side. ”

Far from being naive about the costs and risks, gig workers told us that they were aware that they were assuming risks and bearing costs, and that they preferred to practice a self-aware form of avoidance. They are compartmentalizing to avoid the negative emotions they experience when confronting the vulnerabilities of being a gig worker.

Client Feedback

We were joined this last Saturday by JUST founder, Steve Wanta, Director of Design and Research, Erica Ortiz, and consultant and AC4D professor, Emiliano Villarreal. We presented these themes, along with two more. The two themes above were the ones that were most resonant for the JUST team. They mentioned they also saw feelings of unrealized potential manifest in the entrepreneurs their organization serves. The theme of avoidant thinking was also something that they had observed with some of their clientele.

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Next Steps

Our next presentation with JUST will be around the insights we develop out of these and other themes. What resonates with us, and what resonates with our client, will ultimately determine how those insights shape our design recommendations. We will continue to share our progress and process with you and are available for conversation any time: