The Gig Economy
THE GIG ECONOMY
Whether Uber, Etsy or Door Dash, more and more people are working freelance jobs.
BY SOPHIE JOHNSON
Stroll into a coffee shop on Locust Street during the week and you’ll see what statistics reveal: less than half of Walnut Creek’s 70,000 plus residents consider themselves ‘employed’ in the traditional sense of the word. Packed with plenty of caffeine, free Wi-Fi, and a sense of connection, local coffeehouses are a mainstay for a sizeable sector of the population who are supporting upscale lifestyles in the gig economy.
Former Secretary of Labor and Professor at UC Berkeley, Robert Reich, says the gig economy is, “The biggest change in the American workforce in over a century and it’s happening at lightning speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.”
Also known as the ‘shared economy,’ or the ‘economy of choice,’ giggers patch freelance work together in a buffet of ‘a little of this, a little of that,’ as opposed to a one-pot corporate casserole. Stories abound of the engineer who gave up the timeclock for the freedom of a sole handyman business. Or the recent immigrant who got a Prius thanks to the leasing programs at Uber. Tim Ferris rose to global fame with his promise of a ‘Four Hour Work Week’ to pursue passions, rather than a handful of PTO days.
And while many grew up in families dependent on the comfort of full-time employment, a steady paycheck, benefits and a cubicle, more and more workers today are choosing to patch together work rather than endure a 9-5 career. In areas where the cost of living is extreme, commute times are prohibitive, and the overall economy is robust (with high discretionary spending), gig work is enticing.
The concept isn’t new. Every era has tapped temporary workers whether it was garment workers or migrant farmers. What’s new is the pervasiveness of the gig market. According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, “Some 24% of American adults have earned money in the ‘platform economy’ over the last year.” This can range from millennials offering services such as computer programming, to stay-at-home parents selling stained glass art on Etsy, or retirees renting out homes on Airbnb.
There’s no doubt that the allure of being your own boss is seductive. You get to pick and choose how to work, and where and when to do it. Yet, like other forms of employment, the gig economy has its pitfalls. A recent article in The New Yorker profiled a TaskRabbit worker who enjoyed a variety of day jobs—everything from putting sheets on Caspar mattresses to decorating offices with Christmas cheer—but questioned the sustainability of this career choice in the long run. Traditional government labor protections with employee classifications and laws which shield workers from exploitation are not a function of this new market.
Recently gig giants such as Uber, Instacart and Door Dash have been challenged. Accusations of unfair pay, excessive hours on the job, and lack of steady, reliable work have tarnished the image of organizations who use pay-per-use labor instead of dedicated employees. After working extra-long days, Uber drivers have reported earning less than minimum wage, when gas and expenses are taken into consideration. Fiverr, the online freelance platform, faced complaints when a New York subway ad flaunted their ‘doers’ as sleep deprived. Without employee protections such as collective bargaining for fair labor conditions and overtime, both the companies and the workers are waking up to the darker side of the sharing economy.
Still, it’s tantalizing. For parents, students, energetic retirees, and others on the margins of the conventional economy, making money with gigs feels innovative, cunning, and entrepreneurial. Here are some things to consider before entering the gig workforce:
- Diane Mulcahy, author of The Gig Economy, suggests taking on additional work while making the transition. Use weekends to dabble in gig work and try out a new identity before leaving a full-time role.
- Post your skills on Thumbtack.com, Fiverr.com or Upwork.com to get a good indication of the competitive landscape, how much to charge, and whether the cost benefits work.
- ‘Stay-at-home’ moms are turning to service platforms to max out their days, nights or weekends and taking advantage of professional proficiencies. Sites to check out include cpa-moms.com and apresgroup.com.
- With healthcare a huge factor, another path is combining part-time roles. Starbuck’s offers employees who work 20+ hours a week health insurance coverage, for example.
- Many independent workers bemoan the isolation associated with working solo. To combat this some giggers rent space in co-working environments, or frequent coffee shops and libraries.
- Think beyond financial rewards. Many temporary seasonal retail workers are motivated by employee discounts, complimentary products, and rebates.
- Develop a professional network. Whether starting a service-based business and relying on word-of-mouth referrals, or joining a collective endeavor like Stella & Dot, support from a network can make or break a business.
The professional landscape is changing and only time will tell if the gig economy is as promising as it seems, or if there are unseen consequences. Whether you are a gigger yourself, or you just order dinner from DoorDash, the gig economy has only just begun.