Last week, Nathan Heller published a great piece in The New Yorker, entitled, “Is the Gig Economy Working?” Since my new book, Thriving in the Gig Economy is due out in July, I am very focused on everything that is being released on the topic. Unlike some, Heller has a fairly even-handed discussion of this trend that is shaping the future of work. Whereas some writers focus only on what they see as exploitation of workers in temporary roles with no benefits, Heller focuses on several individuals who are pursuing this type of independent work for the flexibility it affords to have control over time and/or pursue other dreams. Just like it used to be said, that every waiter in Hollywood was an unemployed actor, now that aspiring thespian is just as likely to be an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit errand runner.
I do take issue with him on a few things, however. For one, he throws AirBnB into the Gig Economy world, a construct I don’t endorse. A gig, by dictionary definition, is work of an uncertain duration. Being an AirBnB host does entail work, since the home must be prepared and cleaned for each guest. However, the host is not being hired per se, rather the house is. The short term rental may provide extra income like a gig, but the income does not accrue from labor but rather from the asset that is rented. It is a sharing economy play, and though many people lump them together, I don’t. The sharing economy involves physical assets, while the gig economy involve labor and in many cases, expertise.
This was another dimension of the gig economy that I was sorry Heller did not address. Although there are many low skilled gigs, like those in TaskRabbit, and skilled ones like those on Thumbtack or even Uber, there are a significant number of highly skilled gigs and gig workers. They may be data scientists, interim CFOS, or web developers, and they my get their gigs through digital platforms like Experfy, managed services like The Business Talent Group or via their own networks.
He acknowledges that data on the number of people involved in the gig economy is somewhat sketchy. However, there are several sources of data. Since the various sources, from McKinsey Global Institute to MBO partners, collect and categorize the numbers differently, there is an apple and oranges issue in the comparison. Suffice it to say that around 40 million Americans is a relatively common number across various studies. Of these nearly 27 million are in those professional ranks.
The article is worth the read for its description of some of the issues inherent in the new gig world. These include potential discriminatory behavior, since buyers can see a profile of the worker and opt not to engage someone based on that. There is also the legacy issue of employment status, since whether a gig worker should be an employee or an independent contractor remains an open question. In my view, the nature of the work and the relationship between the parties determine the answer, however it is a thorny issue involving not just access to benefits, but bargaining rights, tax withholding and scheduling. Heller provides a good summary of some of the current thinking in the Department of Labor as well as the idea for a new class of worker called the “independent worker” which would accord some employment benefits to independent workers.
He ends the piece on an unfortunate note, however. Throughout the piece he profiles several gig workers, from a handyman to a dog walker. In the last paragraph, the handyman remarks what a lonely life it is in the world of gigs. That may be true for a handyman who tends to work independently. Many professional gig workers are solving that problem by using co-working space like Wework or here in Northern California, the Hivery, which is a collaboration space in Mill Valley, CA, targeted at women. Their web site says it is a space where women can “pursue their work, passions, ideas and what’s next.” That is a key dimension of the Gig Economy and one that for many people is a testament to the fact that the Gig Economy IS working.