Some hail it as the evolution of capitalism. Some say that it’s driven by innovation. Others say that represents the death knell for workers’ rights and that it’s practices are fundamentally exploitative. Some have even posited that the gig economy represents a degree of exploitation akin to slavery. Boots Riley’s clever and provocative film Sorry To Bother You is an alternately witty and terrifying thesis on just where the gig economy could go in its most extreme form. The gig economy is many things to many people and while there are some who have found success in it. They have relished the freedom and autonomy that it has given them, but at the same time there are many who have been mistreated and become disillusioned by it. So, which is it? Is the gig economy the dark side of capitalism? A vast and exploitative machine that chews up hard working millennials and spits them out? Or is it an ever present, reliable and potentially highly lucrative stream of work that’s always available when other avenues of employment are dry? Well, it’s really both. Here we’ll take a look at the gig economy, it’s pros and cons and how you can make it work for you, regardless of your circumstances…
What is the gig economy?
If you’ve ever ordered an Uber, had a package delivered by an independent Amazon courier or rented an AirBnB you’ve used the gig economy. By 2020 it’s estimated that 40% of the workforce will be comprised of freelancers working short term temporary gigs, In theory, the gig economy represents a new era of capitalism which cuts out the middleman and allows individuals to perform services for companies as independent self employed subcontractors. These individuals use mobile software platforms to accept work doled out by corporations like Uber or Amazon logistics. These platforms are usually self policing, ensuring that workers are insulated from bad behavior from customers as the platforms allow workers to rate customers. However, it works both ways. Customers are also given the opportunity to rate drivers and some platforms even allow customers to leave tips. But this can also prohibit the worker from finding work. Enough low ratings and a worker’s livelihood can be compromised.
Traditionally we’ve come to accept working in the gig economy as a low pay, low skill prospect, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Highly skilled individuals can command very respectable income in the gig economy using mobile platforms to find work. Freelance writers and graphic designers looking for work on People Per Hour, for example, are working in the gig economy. Indeed, technically skilled workers can make a killing. Experts in AI and machine learning can typically make around $115 an hour in the gig economy while blockchain architects can command salaries of around $87 an hour.
So, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
As you can probably see, it’s both. The gig economy is especially attractive to millennial workers, especially recent college graduates who find the world of work to be a forbidding place where the jobs on offer rarely match their education and skill set. Most enterprising young people would rather get on their bike and deliver fast food for Deliveroo than sign up for unemployment benefit. The gig economy can give you a leg up and give you a platform through which you can monetize your skills, expand your portfolio and establish yourself as a monetizable commodity. If you’re just starting out in a skilled industry yet have struggled to find a graduate level job or your lack of experience prohibits you from getting the kinds of jobs that you need and deserve the gig economy can give you a leg up. It also offers flexibility. If you’re looking for work that you can fit around your studies and / or parental commitments, or are looking to start working on the gig economy as a side hustle, it can be a lucrative way to work around your existing commitments.
There are, however, certainly downsides to working in the gig economy. Like any other freelancer, you will enjoy neither sick pay or vacation pay. If you’re unable to work, you don’t get paid. You’re also fully in charge of your own retirement savings. While an employer may offer you a pension plan or a 401K in the gig economy you will be expected to save for your own retirement, and this may be difficult when you work with a platform that affords you low wages and limited opportunities. In 1982 60% of US workers enjoyed a workplace retirement plan. Today that number has been scythed to just 14%. Workers in the gig economy, however, often experience greater levels of safety hazard, especially when they work on the road.
Okay… so, how do I make it work for me?
Needless to say, you need a strong work ethic to make the gig economy work for you. You also need to demonstrate presence of mind, even when at your busiest. Nowhere is this more important than when driving or cycling. This is easier said than done. It’s likely that you will be judged on your speed and time efficiency, but don’t let this push you into bad or dangerous driving habits. Make time to rest. As tempting as it may be to just power on through a long, energy drink fuelled shift, the standard of your work will inevitably decline if you don’t take the time to rest. You will be unable to perceive hazards on the road like other tired drivers including truckers. If your car is written off by a trucker because you were unable to perceive them due to driver fatigue, you don’t want your livelihood to spend weeks in the garage while you negotiate with a lawyer who handles truck accidents. Your behavior both with other road users and customers must be unimpeachable to keep those tips and 5 star reviews coming in and increase your chances of getting better, higher tipping customers.
If you will be freelancing as a creative, it goes without saying that you’ll need to get red hot at managing deadlines. Not only will you have to manage your time effectively, you’ll also have to ensure that your working hours and breaks are clearly defined. Race to meet your deadline and the quality of your work will inevitably suffer.
The gig economy is far from perfect, but as more and more workers join it, hopefully unionization will lead to better pay and fairer conditions for a generation of workers who’ve decided to take their livelihood into their own hands.