So What About The Gig Economy?


Participation in “alternative work arrangements” has declined slightly over the past decade or so, leading the New York Times to declare that the hype about it has been overblown.

The Times story is based on the US government’s first assessment of gig employment, which was a qualitative survey, so the numbers are dependent on what questions were asked, how they were asked, who got asked, and how people chose to respond.

And, just like the US Labor Bureau’s statistics on employment don’t get anywhere near to telling the complete story about jobs — for instance, its narrow definition of what constitutes “looking for employment” excludes millions who don’t have them — the gig survey doesn’t count people who work for outsourcing firms, which are a big thing these days.

So the gig economy isn’t replacing traditional jobs, necessarily, yet traditional jobs are moving, sort of, to becoming gigified.

Maybe the confusion arises from the term “gig economy.”

Selling your time and skills in service to someone else isn’t a new concept; it used to be called being a serf and, during the industrialization of the 19th century, it was renamed “free wage labor”, as workers weren’t owned any longer by feudal masters, but they were still beholden to employers who owned what Marx called the means of production.

There was nothing empowering or inspiring about the arrangement, as whatever freedom workers found in moving from job to job was outweighed by the financial instability arising from the very same process. Maybe it looked good on a balance sheet as a mechanism for matching workers with need for work, but it was a horribly messy and often cruel way of organizing society.

It’s what gave birth to the union movement, and subsequent models of employment that used both stated and implicit contracts between people and the companies for which they worked. Employers started offering health coverage, retirement benefits, shorter work days and less dangerous workplaces, and other perks on top of wages, in exchange for longer and more productive commitments from their workers. Unions delivered many of them.

These are the “traditional jobs” that gigs are replacing, or not.

Ultimately, there’s only one economy, and pretending that using a smartphone app makes being a serf anything different is just a load of spin.Conversely, traditional jobs aren’t really all that traditional, since they only go back about a hundred years.

Any thoughtful conversation about employment should focus on how work is changing, not what it’s called.