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  • Writer's pictureRohan Bhatia

The Gig Economy

Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and television. Hallmark jobs and elements of the 20th-century economy that seemed essential to the daily lives of so many. Yet, as we enter the 2nd decade of the 21st century, these jobs and platforms seem insignificant, overwhelmed, and largely replaced by a wild phenomenon. That phenomenon is the Gig Economy.

More than 150 million people in the Western world now work as ‘independent contractors’, with most of them existing in knowledge-intensive, creative occupations or flexible ‘gigs’ from the comfort of their own home and car. By definition, the ‘Gig Economy’ refers to the evolving labour market that is characterised by short-term contracts and freelance work, in replacement of traditional permanent work. Common examples you may be aware of include; Uber, Uber Eats, YouTube, TaskRabbit, and UpWork. So what exactly has driven this shift to the Gig Economy? The answer is exactly what you're using to read this article right now: The Internet.

The reality is that we are currently going through the third industrial revolution. The first two primarily concerned physical shifts in how goods were being produced, including the introduction of new capital equipment and factories to bolster worker productivity. This third industrial revolution has been driven by the digital economy and the way in which the internet has completely changed how we can offer and demand services.

In Australia, 53% of the workforce had participated in some form of the Gig Economy - whether that is hiring a short-term contractor for a project, ordering Uber Eats for a catering event, or booking an Uber for a company meeting on the other side of the city.

Instead of calling the local taxi agency for a taxi, you just ask for an Uber through the smartphone app. Instead of ringing the local restaurant for a delivery, you just order through the Uber Eats app on your smartphone. Instead of calling up an agency to help move houses, you just book someone on TaskRabbit for 2 hours of handy work.

Naturally, the Gig Economy attracts a number of individuals who are largely disenfranchised from their tedious 9-5 job. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that people really do value the ability to work from home - without the painful commute.

The Gig Economy certainly appears to be an extension of the large-scale casualisation of the workforce over the past 50 years. Employers are beginning to realise the benefits of hiring someone as a casual worker or contractor, rather than on a permanent basis. Certainly, this kind of arrangement provides businesses with the flexibility to offer work to casual workers and contractors on a project-basis and necessarily boosts the efficiency and cost savings for these companies. From the contractor’s perspective, it also provides flexibility on their end as they become unshackled from the tedious 9-5 treadmill that many of these workers have gone through.

But let’s not act this Gig Economy is full of roses and daisies. It’s not, and in fact, the Gig Economy has a lot of ugly that comes along with the pretty face of super flexibility.

To start with, there is pretty much no job security when it comes to most contract work in the Gig Economy. According to the Harvard Business Review, more than half of the Gig Economy agreed that their work, ‘lacked security’. This was manifested clearly throughout the pandemic when the initial fear to travel and enforced lockdowns created havoc for the millions of people who rely on ride-sharing services to pay the bills. People were no longer freely roaming around, catching Ubers and meeting up with friends. Instead, they were locked at home, either afraid to travel or restricted by government-enforced quarantine.

Further, many Gig Economy workers note their relative exploitation and work under the minimum wage. In the same Harvard Business Review paper, 27% of surveyed workers claimed to be earning a relative hourly rate under the national minimum wage in their countries - forcing them to often work long hours and feel taken advantage of by the employers/customers.

Ultimately, the Gig Economy is a force that can’t be stopped; the genie is out of the bottle. The allure of flexible, remote work on the workers’ own accord is too much for many disenchanted permanent workers to pass up upon. Yet the downsides and risks of this shift should not be ignored. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

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