The downside of being a gig worker: new book paints bleak picture of the freelance economy
By Ethel Shepard
Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work
By Sarah Kessler
St. Martin’s Press; hardcover $25.99
Many people reading these words know what it’s like to be searching for work but only getting offers from employers who don’t want to commit to hiring them on a permanent basis. As a result, they may already be freelancing or contracting to pay their bills for another month.
Whether you’re looking for full-time job, or actually want to work on a “gig” basis, it’s likely you’ve already discovered it’s not that easy to make a living wage untethered from permanent employment.
In Gigged: The End of the Job and The Future of Work, author Susan Kessler looks at the personal accounts of people gigging in the new economy. She analyses their personal experiences to understand the challenges independent workers face — and what this new economy portends for the workforce of the future.
Kessler is an editor and reporter at Quartz, where she writes about the future of work. Quartz is a digital news outlet providing “new global economy” business content. Before joining Quartz in 2016, she covered the gig economy as a senior writer at Fast Company, a print and online business publication, and she managed startup coverage at Mashable, an online media and entertainment company.
For this book Kessler traveled widely, holding conversations with workers she feels represent the face of the gig economy including, for example, entrepreneurs and Uber drivers. She interviewed a computer programmer who sees freelancing as a way to have flexibility and freedom. However, in vivid contrast, she spoke with a low-level worker keeping her family afloat by performing small freelance projects for Amazon.
Their stories and others illustrate what is happening across the country to millions of Americans who look to freelancing for a better life — or at least sufficient income to live — but find themselves in employment situations that lack the fundamentals for a satisfying career.
In her travels Kessler found that “The full-time job — to which we’ve attached all the rules about treating workers fairly — is dissolving and the community of workers who are treated as second-class citizens, who aren’t protected by the same laws or entitled to the same benefits as other workers is growing.”
In “Gigged,” along with stories of people struggling to make a living wage, there are accounts of entrepreneurs fighting to beat their competition to stay afloat . . . and paying their workers as little as possible. There also are a few success stories. A programmer who finds free time and multiple projects; a housewife who supplements her income enough to afford to earn a law degree, and an entrepreneur who ends up paying his workers a decent wage and providing training to aid career advancement. But these are exceptions.
What gig workers most often find is there is no job security or steady hours but instead, long hours of work for little pay. Meanwhile, there generally are no benefits, such as health insurance and holiday pay. And there are no limits on the number of hours one might need to work.
Bottom line: In the new digital economy successful companies, such as Uber and Amazon, use technology to leverage their command over their work force and to gradually weaken many of the basic rights workers had fought for and won, beginning with the industrial revolution.
Her predictions for the future of work in the digital age is that, with few exceptions, independent workers will continue to be the losers in the power struggle between the haves and have-nots. She offers a fair-minded analysis of how technology that is grounded in today’s gig economy is slowly eroding the rules of fair compensation and equal benefits. In the future, gig jobs will continue to be awarded to whomever will do the work for less money and in the shortest length of time.
In “Gigged” we learn that by ignoring established traditions for treating workers fairly, companies considered “cutting edge” create successful business models. But this success comes at a price — paid by many of their workers: inadequate compensation and little opportunity for upward mobility. And so the middle class continues to get squeezed.
So, what does the future hold for the next-generation workforce? Currently, one out of three workers are gigging. And the number of gig workers is expected to increase. Kessler believes for the situation to improve there need to changes, and she outlines what she sees as solutions.
Kessler’s ideas include legislation that would guarantee better pay for gig workers. And she forwards a new business model for companies relying on gig workers that would provide for cooperative ownership.
Nonetheless, most of her solutions require employers and politicians to be open and willing to cooperate and compromise. And this is not likely to happen very soon in these times.
For me, the takeaway in “Gigged” is that unless you have in-demand technological talent or other valuable professional skills, the gig economy, far from enabling a utopian work life, often does not provide the income and work flexibility that have been promised by gig-economy proponents.
If you’re enlisted in gig work, and gig work, in turn, is not working for you, the time for training is now. Without making an effort to upgrade your skills it may be difficult to jump back into the traditional model, if you desire this, of working for an employer who has made a commitment to hiring you on a permanent basis.
Ethel Shepard, a public relations consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with corporations and nonprofits, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.