Although the gig economy is not eponymous, back in 2014, it was just beginning to be a thing. I had already been a victim of the gig economy. Since 2007, I had been working as a freelance writer. I had a nice little business going. I had been doing writing gigs for a variety of businesses. I made good money in college doing that sort of thing. When people asked what I did, it mostly leads to quizzical looks. I was standing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore back in 2014, and I was chatting with the cashier and I was talking about freelancing and I said, “this is the future, in 5 years time, more people will work like me than work like you,” she shrugged her shoulders and I left the store. Lo, and behold, here we are: the gig economy is reaching everywhere.
The End of Employment
Traditional employment, in some sectors, is already on its way out. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is notorious for hiring people as contractors. Those people should be employees with real jobs with benefits and rights, but to avoid all of that, Alphabet simply hires them as contractors. Obviously, the biggest offenders of this “gig” apps like Doordash, Uber, and Lyft. Even apps like Airbnb can be classified as a sort of gig for those letting out a house or a room.
The idea within this system is that anything or anyone can be quickly hired and just as easily let go, is rather insidious. It turns people into a commodity. Labor is no longer about people, it’s simply about service. Something needs to be done, and an essentially disposable person can be brought in to solve the problem and dispensed with just as quickly.
Employment stands in contrast to this idea. An employee has a position. They can take risks and most importantly, there is a framework on how they can be treated, how many hours they can work, overtime pay and so on. Contractors have none of these protections. This system is easier for employers, but it is to the distinct disadvantage of employees.
Everything is just a Gig
What does the world look like when all work is simply a gig? What does this look like in a world of remote work? These are questions that are still being resolved. Some states like Colorado and California have passed laws trying to stop this trend towards contracts and gigs, but instead of complying, employers simply eliminate jobseekers from those states.
One of the side effects is that we end up with an economy of ever more precarious workers who are working ever-harder for mediocre pay under contracts that have no obligation to give them any kind of future. How does one build a career on this basis? I am not convinced that will be a thing in numerous instances. Not only have workers have expressed less of a desire to start a career in the 20th century sense, but there is much less opportunity for that in an environment where everything is a gig and the best way to get a pay rise is to change companies. People changing jobs frequently leads to a fluid employment market and great inefficiencies from increased training costs.
Everything being a gig is a function of something happening in the economy that has been common for some kind now. Why pay for people to do something directly when you can hire a company to do it and reduce overhead costs. In my book, What the Hell is Going On? I talk about how Tyson Foods figured out that growing chickens was the most expensive part of their business and began outsourcing it to independent farmers to reduce their costs. The only problem is that most Tyson farmers go broke because the rate at which Tyson buys the chickens is less than the expense of the required water, food, and housing for the chickens. Tyson still gets chickens and the family farmers get a load of debt. For Uber drivers, they have to shoulder the cost of car maintenance on their earnings. The same thing goes for Amazon delivery drivers and others who work independently.
One of the major concerns I have always had with this system is the lack of social stability. When people don’t quite know where their next paycheck is coming from, then it is harder to plan for the future, save money, or make major life decisions. Instability means that people may or may not need to rely on social services from time to time or may need to move quickly in order to take advantage of new employment opportunities. The options that people may pursue certainly depends on the type of work involved but the sad reality is that whether it is an office job or a physical job, the gig economy is many things but stable is not one of them.
Back in 2014, I remarked that if we were going to pursue this as a society, we would have to change a variety of systems in order to accommodate this kind of working. Things like cellphone bills, which are charged monthly and even rent, might have to be shifted to a different model so that people can pay when they are able and have the cash available.
Ultimately, it seems to me that it will be difficult to have the kind of social stability we are used to under these conditions. A lack of income stability has deleterious effects throughout the economy, as people must be careful with their spending to create stability on their own. Often this also causes people to take on roles that are less stable. Take nurses, for example, a nurse can work with an agency and travel from place to place and get more pay, but that isn’t as stable as being at a hospital consistently over time.
As far as economic progress goes, more income goes to the owners of assets rather than those who work and the rich benefit. Quite simply, it’s a transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top. Transferring wealth from the bottom to the top has been a trend that has only gotten worse since the pandemic.
The job market is in an interesting place right now. We are getting more contracts and more gig work while also going through a labor shortage. Unemployment right now is extremely low. If someone wants a job, barring other factors, they should be able to get one. But are these jobs quality? Do they provide the kind of social stability and good living? Unequivocally, no, for many people. There are a few fields that still provide this kind of thing, but it is becoming more rare. An American ran by gig workers is great for the wealthy and corporations, but it is to the disadvantage of every worker.