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The Genesis Of The UK's Gig Economy

07/03/2017 13:21 GMT | Updated 07/03/2017 13:21 GMT

News last week: the number of UK workers on zero-hours contracts has reached the all-time high of 910,000.

It was something of a blast from the past. Because, graduating into the 1990s recession, with a respectable - but by no means impressive - economics degree, the 21-year old me unwittingly found myself in the vanguard of what would become this trend a couple of decades later.

Jobs for new graduates were few and far between, and no amount of job hunting or prospective letter-writing could get round this. So, desperate to lift myself out of what was clearly shaping into long-term unemployment, I took every short-term assignment I could lay my hands on.

Even so, they were very thin on the ground.

Advocates of the zero-hours system talk up the benefits of 'flexibility'. But having gone through at least 60 of those assignments, I have first-hand experience of what that really means.

Registered with about six different temping agencies, my assignments ranged from a morning to 21 months. The pay started as low as £3.20/hour - I'd refuse to work for less - but I never broke through the £4.50 barrier. There were frequent gaps with no work, during which I'd claim unemployment benefits - if I could.

As for the 'flexibility', here are a few of my memories:

The data input assignment at a small engineering firm which was supposed to have taken two days. Keen to get going - too keen, it turned out - the work took me a couple of hours. Result? Taking travel costs into consideration, it didn't need an economics degree to work out I'd made a loss.

Another data input assignment, this time landing me a seven-and-a-hour shift with only half an hour for lunch. Seven hours, staring into an old-fashioned monochrome screen without any time to rest my eyes. It felt like the visual equivalent of walking up stair all day. And around me I could hear complaints about 'mouse hands' aching from RSI. At the end, thoroughly exhausted, I was asked to leave for not having been productive enough.

Then there was the job that never even got off the ground. Midway through a Monday morning, an agency called to ask why I hadn't shown up. It turned out that they'd left me a message with the details of the job on the Friday afternoon - only problem was, it was left on someone else's phone. Having cleared up the confusion, I arranged to go in the next day - only to be told off for being so unreliable and 'lazy' and to be sent away. And this, after a 40-minute wait in reception.

I learnt several things from those experiences of 'flexibility'.

How soul-destroying it can be to do your best but to remain at the complete whim of your employer. Or worse, just of circumstance. The lack of security working without sick pay, holiday pay or pension contributions.

How difficult it is to lift yourself out of the pattern, when going to an interview for a permanent job was seen as a lack of commitment (or more precisely, as 'gallivanting' off to interviews) - and could get you sacked.

How the monotony mixed with money-worries grinds you down, eroding all your confidence.

But most of all, how the never-ending nature of such short-term job cycles makes you lose hope.

Going through that experience may have been character building. And in 2017 it can feel like a distant memory. But don't treat the millennials entering today's workforce with the contempt of pretending that zero-hour contracts are to their benefit.