Recently I’ve read several articles, like this one, about the “gig economy.”
The first question for me was: “What the hell is the gig economy?” I didn’t know if it was short for gigabyte, or some new tech industry term. I learned, though, that the “gig economy” refers to workers who use internet applications like Uber to sell their labor on a one at a time basis. That probably means that “gig” is borrowed from the music world, where rockers and jazz artists have been playing individual “gigs” since time immemorial. In the internet age, I guess we’re all rock stars.
For all of the hype, the “gig economy” isn’t very big — at least not yet. As the article linked above indicates, at this point it’s mostly Uber. That match driver with rider app has exploded in popularity, and had some hiccups along the way, but its website has a simple message: drive with Uber and earn money on your schedule. And the Uber model has been so successful it has spurred the development of other gig app options, not only in the driving world but in other areas, too. TaskRabbit, for example, promises to find a “skilled Tasker” who will help you do chores and errands, while Mechanical Turk seeks to match up workers and businesses to complete thousands of different “Human Intelligence Tasks.”
Recent studies, though, indicate that only about 0.4 percent of people were earning labor income from “gig” jobs, and Uber alone might represent as much as two-thirds of that figure. The studies also show that most people who have tried the gig labor approach end up dropping it. For all of the hoo-ha, it’s not clear that the gig economy is ever going to be a significant part of the U.S. employment picture.
Speaking as an old fart who’s always had a full-time, 9 to 5 type job, I’m not surprised. I can see doing Uber or holding yourself out as a “skilled Tasker” as a supplement to your existing job; lots of people have taken a second, part-time job to try to build up their savings or accumulate the down payment on a house. But I can’t see doing the “gig” work on an ongoing basis as your primary source of employment. It’s too unpredictable and too intermittent. Most people would rather have a full-time job, with benefits, that they can build on. Boring, no doubt, and certainly not as cutting-edge as “gig” work, but boy the security of a regular paycheck sure comes in handy when you’ve got a hungry family.
We’ll see how the whole experiment works out, but don’t be shocked if the U.S. economy ultimately decides that, Uber aside, we’d just as soon leave the “gigs” to the musicians.