The gig economy

The other day I jumped into the gig economy. “The what?”, I hear you say. The gig economy, with gig, not as in “gigahertz” or some such huge scale number, but as in “hey, we have a gig tonight”. Gig as in “temporary performance job”.

the gig economy

You’ve probably heard of (and maybe even used?) the big freelance sites that are taking over the job search and allocation function. ODesk and eLance are the big ones in the US, and here in Spain we have Adtriboo and Nubelo. These “marketplaces” put together programmers, writers, project managers, etc., with businesses or individuals who need to subcontract professional services. An automated temporary employment agency, if you will. It’s quick, reliable and relatively inexpensive. Say you need to integrate your blog into your company website. You post this need to the oDesk board (this is for example, I’m not recommending oDesk over the others), and you receive bids for the job from the interested programmers. They could be next door or on the other side of the world, it doesn’t matter. You choose one, transmit the details via email or file sharing, and you let them get on with it. You pay oDesk, but the payment is not actually taken until the job is successfully completed. ODesk then pays the worker, after taking its cut.

The huge advantage lies in taking the stress out of finding a reliable freelance (and then keeping them happy!). Here you have a choice, just as the freelancer does. Another huge advantage is in no payment hassle, you pay the platform, usually through credit card, and the platform takes care of the rest.

But why is it an economy? Surely it’s just a few websites that help you find an inexpensive computer programmer? We are increasingly hearing the term “gig economy” not because the number of businesses operating in this sector is increasing significantly (although it is), but because it implies a re-think of how we see work, and how we get things done. Less fixed obligations, more freedom. Less routine, more performance.

performance economy

None of this is new, and probably won’t affect you at all if you don’t have a business or website to run. Here’s the cool part: the gig economy is encroaching on your daily life. Platforms are springing up that offer you help with just about anything.

Let’s say you need someone to walk your dog, sort your mail, do your ironing, pick up the groceries or assemble your IKEA bookshelf. You go onto the marketplace of choice (in the US the largest is TaskRabbit, here in Spain we have, type in the task that needs performing, and various interested “performers” will get in touch with you. Or, depending on the website, the platform will choose someone for you. You decide how much you want to pay.

So maybe you’re starting to see why it is a whole different economy, through how the prices are set and the supply is distributed. The market (=you) sets the “wage” (= how much you’re willing to pay). If it’s too little, you’ll have a hard time finding someone capable to do it. If it’s too much, well, I doubt you’d get any complaints, but it’s not very “rational” (economics-speak for “not a good idea”) and so you’d eventually bring the price down a bit.

As for the supply, there’s no continuity implied. You could hire someone on a steady basis through the gig economy, but that does have its disadvantages, as in, what do you do when your dog walker or babysitter or driver can’t do it? With the gig economy you have a steady stream of potential but temporary employees, and if someone doesn’t meet expectations, you don’t hire them again.

The lack of continuity does bring up the trust issue. How do you know they’ll show up? If someone has a salary, they’re interested in not losing that nice steady fixed income, so they’ll continue coming so as to not break their work contract. And they’ll probably try hard to impress you so that not only will you keep them on but soon you’ll want to pay them more. With disjointed “here-today-and-gone-tomorrow” contracts, where’s the incentive?

The ratings system. Anyone who wants to do well in the gig economy lives and dies by his or her rating (of course I’m speaking figuratively!). If you don’t show up, that goes on your public rating. If you’re rude or lazy or incompetent, that goes on your public rating. And with a weak public rating, no-one will hire you.

But where’s the stability that as humans we need and crave? Here’s the thing… do we?? We’re told we do by social analysts and psychologists, we’re shown these pyramids of emotional needs that must be satisfied to be a happy human being… But what if freedom and flexibility are more empowering, more creative?

I could go on for ages about this, but I’ll stop because I’m about to exceed my self-imposed word limit (you can thank me later). I’ll probably come back to this soon, with some facts and examples to show you how fast this whole thing is growing.

My experience with the gig economy was mixed: I had a few computer issues to be fixed, and the technician that I was assigned took ages and wasn’t able to fix anything. But I loved the platform (I used, and would definitely go back to them again. And, yes, they will let me request a different technician next time.

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