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The Gig Economy

You wake up, go to work, put in your 8 hours and go home.  If that is the numbing grind you want to break out of, you might want to consider yourself lucky.   Millions of Americans have taken on a series of part-time jobs that add up to something like a living as they juggle their schedules.  But for an uncounted many, work comes one assignment at a time as they scramble constantly to find the next small job that will take them to the next mortgage payment or even the next meal.  These are the millions of workers in the Gig Economy.

How many?  It may be as much as a third of the workforce, but no one is really sure.  Uncertainty defines this trend from the daily routine right up to the future of the economy as a whole.  Managing any aspect of this emerging world is made much more difficult as a result.

The term “Gig Economy” dates to a January 2009 article by Tina Brown.  Terms like freelancer, consultant, or independent contractor have come to describe workers of all ages and skills.  It is no longer confined to a creative class or the margins of society as it was in the past.  It is the natural way that the economy has responded to the problem of high overhead per employee, to the extent that it can.

The trend itself is defined heavily by the lack of security, both in immediate income and in benefits like health care, pension, and so on.   Contract workers are also not protected by laws against discrimination based on age, race, or anything else.  These are the most obvious problems on a personal level, but the instability of this kind of work has its toll on families and communities as well.

Through it all, our policies from taxation on a 1099 form through worker protection and health care all reflect a time when a job meant 8 hours a day from one employer for most of the nation.

On a personal note, I have survived this way since 2005.  I have worked with friends on a start-up, attempted my own start-up operation, then turned to a fully independent life as a grant writer, copy writer, and later social media consultant.  I currently have a job as a campaign manager and am expanding my teaching and coaching into workshops on social media.  Most of what my work had no official “training,” skills such as website crafting picked up on the fly.  There have been good times and bad.  I am not proud and constantly “on call” – but I have been able to pick my kids up at school every day.

That may sound like an ideal life for a divorced dad, but it requires constant scrambling.  I spend more time finding work than doing it, which is silly.  I have no security, always living on the edge.  Yet it could be much worse.

This summer I was walking West Seventh street when a young man stopped to ask where he could find a drink of water on a hot day.  His accent betrayed he wasn’t from here, a son of the South where businesses are usually required by law to give water freely on a sultry evening.  He gave his name as Demont and clearly wanted to bum some cash from me, but shyly demurred from lack of practice. We talked for a while and he said that he was from New Orleans, a skilled welder who ran out of work when the post-Katrina boom ended.  He heard there was work up here, and had an interview for a contracting gig the next day out at University and 280.  We chatted up where that is and where to find the 16 bus.  I gave him my transit pass and we parted.

Demont was a young man defined by his skill who had the drive to travel thousands of miles to where he heard there might be work.  He couldn’t even be a bum when he tried.  The life that the Gig Economy has given him is a hard one where much of his effort goes into moving on and surviving.

No one knows how many brothers and sisters in the Gig Economy are out there.  There is no government stat tracking us and how we survive.  No policies are written around this trend and what it means to families or communities.  No one can say how energetic people will pick up new skills as they work long hours or move around looking for the next gig.

What does the Gig Economy really mean?  We don’t know yet because though it is shaping many lives and the whole economy it passes by deliberately unseen.  But it will help define the next economy we are restructuring towards, however lazily.

Are you a freelancer, consultant, or contractor with a story to tell?  What do you think this means for the future – your own as well as the world we all share?  I’d love to hear your story, too.

19 thoughts on “The Gig Economy

  1. I also struggle from one ‘gig’ to the next I have a stable of regular clients that give me work as an accountant but it is never quite enough. I’m always looking for new clients to pay the bills. Networking and chasing leads make up a lot of my day and I have had to learn how to do it effectively. It is a very hard life but I do value the free time I have to myself. I don’t know if I would take a corporate job at this point unless the pay was really good but having built up a good base over the years is important. Without that you can bet I would take whatever I could find.

  2. Anna: Thanks. I think this is one of those things we don’t talk about out of shame. It wasn’t that long ago that “freelance” meant “unemployed”, and in the face of superstar images of wealth thrown at us in popular culture a lot of people feel they are an underclass, left behind and isolated. I think we all need to talk about this a lot more and realize that this is the way work will be done by a lot of people – today and tomorrow. There is no shame in being able to survive in the face of adversity!

  3. Jack: You and a lot of other people I know. I haven’t been able to find good stats on the numbers – so many your age fall into the “discouraged worker” category and fall off the Oh-Fish-Eye-Al gummint rolls. If someone knows where I can find a breakdown of U6 unemployment by age I’d be very grateful (a google search includes way too much garbage). But I know there are a LOT of you out there.

  4. I feel bad for young people today. So few of them even get a start before the rug is pulled from them. Kids moving back in with their parents get a lot of bad press but I know a lot are motivated and smart but just can’t find work. And they will get the tab for the government we have today. If this “gig economy” is all they have I am sure some will make something of it but it is a lousy way to start in life.

  5. Saw an interesting graphic US has 5 million millionaire households, Japan 1.5, china 1.1 and Germany .5. Guess who has fuller employment?

  6. Jim: The other end of what Jack mentioned. Yes, what is being done to people under 25 will probably merit a revolution one day. We have some bad retribution coming, I think.

    Dan: Bingo. It’s not as though there’s a finite pie to be divided, but … there kind of is in the end. Strangling the middle class won’t get the rich anywhere in the long run, either, because the hearts and arms and brains of people are what create all wealth – letting them go to waste wastes the greatest resource our nation (or any nation) has. So you can imagine what the highest possible wealth of the nation requires – and this ain’t it.

  7. I don’t know much about the gig economy except what I’ve learned from my sister, who lives in the bay area and has been part of it on and off for many years. She reports that most in her large social circle have their own business of some sort and, from what I gather, many do fairly well. Her income was insufficient to stay in her flat, so she leased it to a friend and has lived for about 2 years now mostly rent free in a variety of house sitting arrangements.

    Which brings me to a particular sentence in your post that caught attention, the one about “many brothers and sisters in the gig economy.”
    I connected this with posts I read in the freelancer’s union blog about the new mutualism, aka the sharing economy. This is something I would like to learn more about if you are fishing for a topic one day.

  8. I am a member of the gig economy. I sell real estate, I get writing gigs, consulting gigs that really are writing gigs, I get photography gigs – – I had two jobs last week :) and I have a part time gig doing some QA testing for a west coast company that makes software and iPad apps. I sell photographs and calendars too. There is no job security, paid vacations or health insurance. Some times I make a lot of money and sometimes I don’t make enough to pay the bills. . . and my involuntarily retired husband is always at the ready to work with me when there is enough for both of us. I have tried finding a job but have found that if I keep focused on the idea of finding work I can make it happen.

  9. Laurie: The Freelancer’s Union made me think of Larry the Cable Guy – “Git ‘r Done!” I think that’s the world we’re in now. Need to make something happen? Slip a guy a few bucks and it’ll happen.

    T: It”s a constant scramble, isn’t it? But you’re surviving and so am I. This has been a bad month for me, and I think a lot of us. But like you I’ll do just about anything to make a buck. Been a while since I did any finish carpentry, for example. Just have to keep your eyes open for any opportunity and maybe even a freebie if you’re sure it has a chance of leading to something. Thanks for your story!

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