Some people join in for money, others seek to learn more or pursue their life-long passion: it seems everyone wants a piece of the gig economy. This “precarious” or “casual” work seems to offer a flexible employment alternative, where workers seek numerous side jobs instead of a unitary stable one. But is this labour revolution something to be excited about or should we be wary of its potentially harmful impacts?
Thank you to Patrick Duncan, Alessio Chen, Ella Morrison and Sarah Firminger, who produced this content for a blog-writing competition as part of their assignment for MN10005 People and Organisations 2 module at the University of Bath School of Management.
High productivity equals high pressure
Growth in the number of independent contractors or freelancers has been rising rapidly, reaching an astonishing 11% in August 2018, according to Paychex. In the tech industry, it’s estimated that 40% of workers will be independent contractors by 2020. Freelancers are launching new apps and contributing to companies with innovative technology to provide a competitive edge in the marketplace. They tend to have specialised IT skills and expertise in technologies that a company can't devote its own internal resources to implement. By hiring independent contractors, companies are expanding their technological capabilities and increasing the demand for gig work.
Freelance work is based around giving workers greater flexibility. Tasks are assigned with a deadline and it's up to the worker to decide how to execute them. Freelancers may decide to work on days most suitable for them and are given the possibility of working independently from home, or from a remote office space, allowing them to balance a professional career and family needs.
This might push employees to be more disciplined and productive – if you are your work, procrastinating all day isn't really an option. However, higher productivity tends to lead to higher stress, and this has been a major problem with many freelancers who constantly worry about money and reputation. The irregular and unpredictable nature of much of this work adds to financial insecurity for workers. Furthermore, basic employment law and benefits such as the minimum wage, parental leave and sickness pay do not apply.
Gig work has resulted in employment becoming increasingly individualised, offloading the costs of labour onto the employee. One European budget airline was revealed as having 70% of its pilots self-employed. These workers then become responsible for the majority of their costs that we might usually expect an employer to cover, including uniforms, stopover hotels, identity cards and other expenses. Gig workers might therefore end up spending considerably more money than ‘normal’ employees, making their financial position worse.
Additional pressure is put on gig workers from public rankings. The gig economy is all about quantifying satisfaction. We see this in many platforms - whether it’s the number of subscribers a Youtuber has, or the rating of an Uber driver, it seems trust has been digitalized to fit the freelancer economy. Perhaps there are some benefits to making services more transparent, but at the same time, being so closely observed and publicly rated could make us anxious as it slowly erases the gap between work and personal life.
Ride-sharing services, such as Uber, and home-sharing services, such as Airbnb, are gaining huge popularity at the expense of traditional hotels and taxis. But how vulnerable does the economy become through this change? Are we potentially constructing a new form of feudalism? Feudalism describes a medieval model of agriculture where the kings owned the land and rented it out to the lords. At the bottom level of this hierarchy, peasants farmed the land; they were essentially the ones producing but did not own the means of production. It is possible that gig work has brought us to a form of digital feudalism, where platform owners own the technology but the users, creators and gig workers are those actually producing. The people working at the bottom level of this hierarchy have a fundamental reliance on the technologies owned by organisations. These technologies could be taken away at any moment, similarly to the way a king can claim his land back from a peasant, which leaves workers unprotected and forming part of a new precariat class.
When considering if this ‘future of work’ is a positive or negative prospect, we shouldn’t disregard the impact on gender equality in certain sectors of this new economy. The article ‘Anxiety, panic and self optimization: Inequalities and the YouTube algorithm’ assesses the gig work of a ‘vlogger’ – someone who makes content for an audience on platforms like YouTube. The author notes that associated words with the respective genders included ‘funny’, ‘muscle’, ‘skin’ and ‘challenge’ for men, whilst women were associated with words such as ‘Neutrogena’, ‘Bourjois’, and ‘ASOS’, suggesting that that women are seen purely as a vehicle for consumption.
We might conclude that the gig economy causes stress, financial uncertainty and exacerbates gender inequality and financial insecurity. However, this may not be a fair conclusion. The flexibility associated with the gig economy is a major positive, not least for women.
A recent report by ‘Hyperwallet’ noted that of the females working within the gig economy ‘59%... have spouses with full time careers’ and ‘70% are the primary care givers’ within their families. So it’s possible that the gig economy is providing opportunities for financial independence and career development to women who might previously have been confined to the home due to their domestic and family responsibilities.
Flexibility has benefits for everyone. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the Hawthorne experiments, in which workers were given more control over their roles at work – as a result the workers became happier and enjoyed their job more. This had an impact on the whole firm because it resulted in fewer strikes and a generally happier working environment.
Some roles within the gig economy also offer women another opportunity – to avoid unequal pay due to gender discrimination. Equal pay is said to be more prevalent in this economy, perhaps because gender is not necessarily the main source of identification for workers. In the Hyperwallet report, around a third of women have admitted to working anonymously to avoid preconceptions related to gender.
Despite its downsides, the gig economy is a source of income for many. For people who have other commitments or simply enjoy the freedom, gig work offers a wealth of new opportunities to make a living. And at a time when we’ve seen major brands fail and mass redundancies ensue, the ability to diversify income and not rely on a sole employer is one we shouldn’t dismiss.
Header image by Hannah Wei on Unsplash