Attracted to the freedom of project work, whether it is writing, coding, or driving, people of all backgrounds and professions are participating in the gig economy. The exponential growth of companies like Uber, Upwork, and Expert360 suggests the gig economy is only continuing to expand, with upwards of 46% of Americans participating in it in some form.
This gig economy has created convenient opportunities for people to make money, whether on the side of their main job or as their primary source of income. For people who struggle with the regimented requirements of traditional office jobs, such as many caregivers, travelers, or the elderly, the ability to set their own schedules has been a boon.
But the flexibility and the freedom to work independently has come with some drawbacks. The gig economy is generally less profitable and far more insecure than other types of employment. It lacks worker benefits and protections, which, to some, makes it like another Gilded Age of working. In addition, it can be a poor place to develop a career or find a sense of belonging.
Financial Insecurity and No Benefits
Gig companies, like Lyft, Uber, and Upwork, act as “intermediaries” between gig workers and the customers buying their services. They aren’t responsible for the benefits or well-being of their workers.
Gig workers don’t have employee-sponsored 401ks, health or life insurance, or HSAs. They are left to handle their own taxes, and to save for their retirement. After those expenses are accounted for, even highly skilled, active gig workers are often left with much less in the bank than their traditionally employed peers. And many lower skilled gig workers simply go without health insurance or retirement savings.
Most gig workers are considered “non-employees” and this places them outside many legal protections that have been afforded traditional employees. Gig work is often “piece rate,” or project based, for example. When these gigs are calculated into an hourly wage, workers often are making less than minimum wage, and they aren’t earning paid time off or overtime.
In addition to working without benefits, the gig economy is often more volatile than traditional employment. A graphic designer on Upwork, for example, may get seven gigs one month, and two the next. This uncertainty can be stressful, and make it tough for workers to remain financially secure or to budget successfully.
The Struggle to Build a Career
While the gig economy offers much-desired flexibility, it can be a difficult way to build a career. A traditional employer will often pay for their employees to develop the skills required for their career to progress. Gig workers do not have access to free training, mentorship, or a clearly defined career path.
Gig workers must often jump from project to project, and, in order to stay ahead financially, they can rarely afford to turn down lucrative jobs. However, these jobs are usually in areas the gig worker already has expertise. A graphic designer who has done thousands of logos will be offered more logo design jobs, for example, even though they might prefer to improve their UX/UI web design skills. Unlike an employer, a client doesn’t consider it in their purview to subsidize a gig worker’s professional development.
Instead of having an employer to structure and facilitate this career progression, gig workers essentially have to take on this responsibility themselves. Locating a mentor to take a vested interest in one’s future, for example, is harder outside of the structure of a company where bosses are motivated to facilitate their employees’ growth.
Belonging to a Team and Ownership of Work
Gig workers are often not only working outside the team they are doing work for, but are on temporary contracts. This diminishes the opportunity to feel a sense of ownership over their work. Often, as gig workers move from one project to the next, their relationship to their work can feel more mercenary and temporary.
While gig jobs often involve some socialization with clients, it is often as an outsider, not as a peer. For the copywriter writing a white paper for one client, social posts for a second, and a monthly blog for a third, they might not feel connected to the office comradery or like they belong to a team.
Many gig workers report feeling disconnected from the company they are doing work for. Due to this isolation, 70% of current and former gig workers said they would not choose to be self-employed in the future.
The gig economy offers workers much needed flexibility and freedom. But, for many, it has come at a cost. Many gig workers are left in financially precarious positions, with little security, sense of belonging, or a long-term pathway for advancement.
More companies are offering remote employment to provide the flexibility of the gig economy alongside the benefits of traditional employment. Such workers can rely on health insurance, retirement, and a reliable monthly income but still work whenever and wherever they want.
Workers with flexible employment have a higher level of retention than traditional employees. This suggests it might be a way to have both freedom and benefits.
The need for freedom and flexibility isn’t going anywhere, but the future of work will most likely be dominated by arrangements that empower workers to have the best of gig work and the best of traditional employment.