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.