The news stories around disruptive tech companies and bogus self-employment are one side of the Gig Economy story. But beyond the cabs and couriers, flexibility is becoming the preferred working model for employees and entrepreneurs alike.
Every job, to some extent - even the apocryphal 40 years of service ending in cake and a gold-plated watch - is a gig. The word 'gig' started out, in 1920s jazz parlance, as a truncation of 'engagement'.
Matthew Taylor's Modern Employment Review this month battled with the problems of the Gig Economy - specifically the emerging workforce springing up around more successful digital 'disruptor' companies like Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. There are undeniable downsides to this mechanised, job-by-job approach to engaging staff, particularly when workers feel pressurised into long hours on the clock - or worse, on unpaid standby - without the holiday, sick-pay and pension benefits afforded by full time work. Zero hours contracts have the same bad rep, with their unpredictable shift patterns, lack of notice and no minimum hours guaranteed.
Of course, any trend in working culture that leaves the door open to stealth feudalism and bogus self-employment must be taken seriously. Many of Taylor's findings and suggestions for improving the conditions for the disparate workforce in the Gig Economy have been cautiously welcomed, although many commentators and politicians felt he didn't go far enough. But there's another story here beyond legislating against exploitation of this emerging workforce. It's less sensational right now, but it's potentially revolutionary...
The world of work has been changing for a while - more people than ever before are seeking out flexibility in their working lives. We have an ageing population expected to stay in work longer but unable to commit to regular work, whilst increasing living costs with stagnating wages means more people taking on second jobs to supplement their income. Some people are parents and carers, people pursuing their own business or creative goals, and some just can't face the weekly grind anymore. More of us each year are choosing self-employment, freelancing and causal work over job security - 15% of us are now our own boss. According to a recent survey, seven out of ten workers in London would prefer more flexible hours, but don't feel they can ask their current employers without risking disapproval. And along with the growing number of people who want and need flexible working there are new, small-to-medium sized businesses - in the traditional as well as the digital sectors - who can't yet afford to take on full time staff, and who rely on gig workers and zero hours contracts. Many small-to-medium size businesses are dependent on their casual workforce; it's not in their interest to exploit them when their business growth model depends on flexibility. Professionals, creatives, skilled manual, personal services and admin make up 80% of the Gig Economy, but these everyday fair-exchange-is-no-robbery stories don't make headlines.
We're still playing catch up with the implications of this shift. Legislating for employment rights and simplification of taxation is a good start, but we need to put our insurers, banks and pension providers under pressure to provide products that can service this new community of flexible workers and also give employers wanting to embrace this new culture a range of services to support their temporary employees. One of the big concerns for workers on zero hours contracts is institutional bias around perceived financial insecurity. Even getting mobile phone contracts can be problematic, never mind a mortgage.
There is increasing automation of work at the big business level not just with the predicted arrival of self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, automated tills, but with AI replacing human skills and experience in professions like legal, finance and medicine. This will mean more people in the Gig Economy, but also potentially more businesses needing a flexible workforce. People will still trade, create and need personal services. We'll figure it out, human resourcefulness and adaptability has got us this far. We can't know yet how traumatic or energising this trajectory will be, but it could well be the case that supporting the infrastructure around entrepreneurialism so that it works for both employer and employee is one way to evolve into the challenges of the new century. The Gig Economy is an opportunity to redraw the terms of engagement - we owe it to ourselves to make sure self-employment works better for all of us, it's a huge opportunity, not a threat.