This post was updated in June 2019.

It’s impossible to escape news of the growing gig economy. Upstart ride-for-hire firms such as Lyft and Uber now employ armies of smartphone-connected freelance drivers to help people get around cities for less than traditional taxi businesses, who are hampered by red tape and higher employee costs.

Taxi firms are outraged, but this model has spread rapidly to other services. These days, there are apps that bring a vast variety of goods and services directly to your door step. The rise of Uber, the most prominent gig employer, has even given birth to a new word: “uberization.” A quick web search turns up countless articles boldly declaring that today we stand on the verge of mass “uberization.” In fact, we’ve already seen this model disrupt finance, the economy, and nearly everything else. Some even predict that by 2020, over 50% of Americans will work in the gig economy.

So are we moving to a world where millions of people set their own schedules, clocking in and out on their smartphones? Will employers become reliant on armies of freelancers? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Just how widespread is “uberization”?

Beyond the breathless headlines, one very solid measure of the excitement generated by the gig economy is the amount of money that investors are pouring into it. In January, Lyft revealed that it had raised $1 billion in its latest funding round, $500 million of which came from GM—representing an interesting marriage of old and new approaches to the technology of transportation. Uber, meanwhile, has to date raised over $10 billion and is valued at a staggering $62.5 billion, according to the New York Times.

Job seekers are invested in the growth of these budding companies as well. As part of the research for the latest report from the Indeed Hiring Lab, we analyzed the global job search traffic for a set of companies that employ contractors in this manner (Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Favor, Postmates, Deliv, Grubhub and Luxe) and found that the number of searches for gig jobs relative to other types of employment increased by a factor of 15 between January 2013 and July 2015.

However, when you look at the number of contractors actually working for these firms, the findings are less dramatic. In late 2014, when Uber last released figures, the total number of “active drivers” who had completed four or more trips was 162,037. Considering that there are nearly 160 million workers in the US labor force, that’s not an overwhelming number.

Even if you factor in all the contractors working for all the other gig employers, then the total number of people making their living solely or partially from the gig economy remains marginal. Nor has evidence of the gig economy surfaced in any standard labor market indicators. It is notably absent from the two Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey data series in which we would most expect to see them—that is, for the self-employed and multiple jobholders.

Self-driving cars and the future of the gig economy

Let’s look at one last factor. According to The New York Times, GM plans to establish a set of short-term rental hubs in the US where people can pick up a vehicle and earn money by driving for Lyft. However, the auto giant's long-term interest lies elsewhere—in developing an on-demand network of driverless cars.

Uber also has a research center for self-driving cars and is currently hiring top quality engineers from major tech firms to work on the project. If this investment in the automation of driving is successful and spreads to similar services—and why wouldn’t it?—then the future may involve fewer rather than more gig economy jobs.

So, the full-time job certainly continues to be dominant. However, the rise of the gig economy has provided many people with a chance at flexible employment to supplement income or get them through a job loss in a way that didn’t exist before. Flexible work powered by technology platforms is a disruption to traditional employment models that may well have ripples beyond the current number of people employed in this manner.