The gig economy is not intrinsically a bad thing. In fact, it’s given many of us a great opportunity

When little seems to be happening to address stagnating wages, decreasing social mobility and the high cost of living, the gig economy fills the gap

Katie Bishop
Sunday 30 June 2019 15:44 BST
UK millennials suffer worst falls in incomes of any advanced economy apart from Greece, report reveals

In many people’s minds, the phrase “gig economy” is synonymous with everything that is wrong with 2019, along with zero hour contracts, austerity, gentrification and, of course, avocados.

Characterised by short-term contracts, often facilitated by technology, the gig economy has more than doubled in the last three years. For many this is a sign of the increasingly insecure nature of work and irresponsible employees. But for me, and many gig economy workers like me, this hasn’t been the full story.

Although many aspects of the gig economy are troubling there is also hope for a more positive future. In fact, an incredible 90 per cent of freelancers believe that the best days are ahead for them, and more than two thirds report earning more than they did in full-time employment. Over half of gig economy workers say that they are satisfied with their experience, highlighting independence and flexibility as the primary causes of their positivity.

My own experience has involved taking on extra work in my spare time — a so-called “side-hustle”. As a full-time book editor and freelance writer I’m often up early to squeeze in an hour of work before I head into the office. Instead of relaxing in the evening after a busy day, I’ll work on pitches and polish up drafts. Weekends are regularly taken up by making edits, and a spare hour is always an opportunity to seek out new work. Working two jobs comes with a host of challenges but for me, and many like me, it has simply become a necessity. One wage just doesn’t cut it anymore.

But although many might not envy my set-up, the gig economy has also enabled a career move that I might never have taken otherwise. In a career like journalism (dominated by privately-educated individuals with Oxbridge or postgraduate education who often undertake lengthy unpaid work placements to get a foot in the door) the ad hoc and opportunistic nature of the gig economy gives people like me a chance without having to give up on the stability of a regular paycheck. And it’s not just me and other writers either—in fact a startling one in 10 UK workers now take part in the gig economy, many of them alongside a full-time job.

The current set-up is undoubtedly problematic, and there are troubling issues when individuals working full time can’t make ends meet. We live in a society where real wages remain below the level recorded before the economic crisis but where house prices and living costs continue to rocket. Many gig economy workers carry out their contracts alongside a full-time job from necessity rather than a desire for creativity or entrepreneurship.

But when little seems to be happening to address stagnating wages, decreasing social mobility and the high cost of living, the gig economy fills the gap.

Of course, I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have found work that I enjoy doing in a way that suits me. There are many workers doing much more challenging roles for far less pay. But in an age where almost half of workers are dissatisfied with their primary career, the gig economy can also be a positive thing. It can be a chance to boost your income in a flexible way whilst pursuing a dream, albeit low-paid, job. It might be a way to juggle childcare with a career when a structured nine-to-five day doesn’t meet your work-life balance needs. Or it might allow you to take back control of your career path at a time when burnout is endemic and over a third of workers feel that their skills are underused.

For me the gig economy has been an opportunity to straddle two careers that I am genuinely passionate about but that don’t pay enough alone for me to get by. Given that many people consider personal values and social impact important priorities in their career, the ability to fund a low-paying but personally fulfilling career is a seductive aspect of the gig economy’s flexible nature.

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Yet if the gig economy is here to stay there is much still do be done. A survey of the UK’s gig economy workers showed that a quarter of participants said that they were dissatisfied with their work-related benefits and level of income, and that the lack of regularity and predictability of work was a significant challenge.

As the alternative work patterns rise in popularity, policy must respond to support this new-age wave of workers. Evidence of the gig economy’s rapid rise should spur the government to protect workers’ rights, including fair wages, regulation around paying people on time and clear definitions regarding what constitutes gig economy work. If the best days are truly ahead, we need to make this way of working sustainable.

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