Even a couple of years ago the ‘gig economy’ might have related to playing in bands. Not today. This innocuous sounding phrase is code. It might appear glamorous but it’s just another way to describe casual and underpaid jobs. Uber drivers, couriers, cleaners, care workers: they’re all part of this brave new work. And it is notable for a lack of security and low pay with few benefits. Not such a great gig.
This used to be called the ‘sharing economy’ – though employers always had the lion’s share. Today it might be better described as an ‘app economy’. Online platforms are regularly used for delivering each gig, amounting to no more than piece work. Who gets the gig? People who deliver or drive or clean. In other words, paid servants. These jobs resemble zero-hour contracts, with no guarantee of pay except on delivery and without an hourly minimum.
The ‘gig economy’ enables companies to cut or limit staff costs. They call it ‘flexible’ – though workers have less polite names for it, missing out on protection and fair pay. Flexibility only goes one way. The employer can roster workers on and off as required, without annual or sick leave. Workers aren’t even considered employees but ‘contractors.’ Sounds more glamorous. It’s not.
In Britain the ‘gig’ workforce is currently 15%; that’s five million people, though this number does includes traditional contractors and underemployed workers on short-term contracts. Predictions in the USA indicate that by 2020 up to 40% of the workforce will be independent contractors. Great news for employers. They can pick and choose from an even larger pool of workers.
Getting a gig is allegedly popular with so-called ‘Millennials’ but the reasons are manifold. Yes, there is a generational preference for online connection and an attraction to short-term planning. On the other hand, many younger people report despondency as they face diminished job prospects due to increased automation and digitisation. And there is a larger than ever pool of people willing – or forced – to move around global labour markets, vying for a shrinking number of sustainable jobs.
Employers can’t lose. In the ‘gig’ economy they even save on office space and employee benefits. They buy and drop expertise as needed without having to waste money on frivolities such as staff development. Also they can spruik increased flexibility as family-friendly and achieving a greater work-life balance for workers. Benevolent.
Most would-be gigsters face a plight comparable to the Blues Brothers band. Even a redneck roadhouse gig where you’re expected to play both Country and Western music is better than having no gig at all. But let’s not give it the dignity of a term like ‘gig economy’ when ‘hand-to-mouth economy’ is more accurate. Some gigs are more equal than others.