The Gig Economy: Finding Purpose in Precarity

In 2016, Gizmodo published an article highlighting the disconnect between gig-economy heavyweight Lyft and its employees. The article noted how Lyft had shared what 
it thought was a cute story about one of its drivers – the company praised a pregnant employee for continuing to work even as she went into labor. Bryan Menegus, the author of the Gizmodo piece, took issue with Lyft’s version of the story; he argued that perhaps the driver was less motivated to continue working out of a sense of commitment to or love of the job, and more out of economic necessity.

What drove this woman to keep driving: economic need, dedication, or something else? So much of who we are and how we live is dictated by the careers we choose, but many of these careers are increasingly being disrupted by automation in manufacturing and other similar sectors. In response, members of the workforce are turning to odd jobs in the gig economy in order to supplement part-time work or otherwise take control of their employment situation. The gig economy is being touted as the savior of unemployment – but have we really considered its sustainability and longer-term purpose?

Flexibility Does Not Equal Precarity

A flexible work life should not mean a precarious life. Flexible work in the gig economy should be designed with the purpose of reducing precarity, not furthering it – particularly for those who are resorting to it by necessity rather than choice. The value of flexible work and its role in supporting people’s day-to-day subsistence also needs to be understood. This requires operating in the gray; while the gig economy teeters on the edge of systemic precarity for some employees, it still plays an important role in allowing people to navigate their own livelihoods.

But this doesn’t mean that people should be reverting back to more traditional ways of earning a living. Oftentimes, by sacrificing job security, people actually create more opportunities for stability in other areas of life that require greater attention. Anthropologist Dr. Kathleen Millar illustrates just this in her work in Rio de Janeiro with catadores (those who make a living by collecting recyclables from the garbage dump). She found that many catadores choose to abandon more stable work to return to laboring in the dump, as it allows them to attend to “everyday emergencies” that arise from living on the margins. In less extreme circumstances, the flexibility of the gig economy can 
allow someone to earn a wage while also meeting the demands of caring for a dependent, such as an aging parent or a young
 child, when no other support is available.

Moreover, the gig economy opens up an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a productive citizen in the 21st century. Following the Second World War, work became highly entwined both with people’s identities and their social lives. While some have argued that the end of the traditional Fordist-era labor structure has had negative consequences, such as the disappearance of social networks and an increase in situations of precarious labor, it could also be argued that this change has allowed for the emergence of new subjectivities that are less reliant on the notion of the “good capitalist worker.”

The gig economy also allows those looking to commit their time to non-economic pursuits during established “office hours” to do so while also working to meet their basic needs. Thus, until society as a whole is capable of creating total stability for even the most vulnerable populations across all aspects of daily life (which, we argue, is the ultimate goal), the kind of flexible work provided by the gig economy actually serves as a necessary – albeit imperfect – solution.

Leveraging the Gig Economy

The only way to ensure a sustainable livelihood for gig workers is to recognize and harness the two-way purpose of the gig market. As corporate competition increases within the gig economy, businesses within this emerging industry must differentiate themselves by offering true flexibility – not precarity. Only by providing such flexibility will organizations succeed in the future gig economy. This is best illustrated by Uber’s recent legal and financial troubles. According to a recent article in Time magazine, “Some of Uber’s problems were on public display. Drivers sued over their legal classification, saying Uber should treat them as employees – with the attendant benefits – if it was going to do things like set the price they could earn per mile. Some complained they weren’t even making minimum wage.”

The difficulty, of course, is navigating the fine line between necessary flexibility and dangerous precarity. The organization that is better able to understand not only the needs of the end consumer, but also of the gig worker, will engender loyalty. 
By being invested in the fulfillment of these workers that are driving (literally, in many cases) their business model, gig creators
 will gain a sustained pool of workers to run their economy. It is incumbent upon the creators of this gig market to recognize 
the longer-term opportunity that they have to develop their workers/contributors in order to sustain their potential. This may be done by offering:

01/ A New Method of Classifying Employees

While some will engage in the gig market for odd jobs and few hours, others will work “full-time” hours. Gig workers who work over an established number of hours deserve full-time employee status with the protection of certain benefits, and at least minimum wage, in order to guarantee a secure livelihood. The relationship between flexibility and temporariness is not one-to-one, and it should be recognized as such by gig employers. Workers should be given employee status 
if they maintain a certain minimum of hours.

02/ Opportunities for Development and Advancement

Gig workers who are improving their skills while on the job are no different from other employees. These gig workers should be recognized for their increased skill level and should be given an opportunity for advancement through increased hourly wages or other benefits, such as discounted access to educational programs or apprenticeships. Consider the loyalty a gig employer would engender by offering their hardest working employees opportunities for employment advancement and, ultimately, recognition for their hard work.

03/ Collective Support for Gig Workers

Gig employers and gig workers are not the only ones who can participate in this new marketplace. Other institutions – such as those in the financial services industry – should recognize the importance of the growing cohort of gig workers and their needs. Imagine, for example, the success of the first bank that recognizes the needs of solopreneurs and provides those unique workers with a new set of financial services products.

The gig economy has historically existed on the fringes of work, relegated to part-timers and free spirits, but the landscape
 has changed. There is purpose to be found within it, one that will ensure the longevity of companies providing this type of work while giving gig workers a better reason to get in their car and drive.

the author

Kareen Proudian

Kareen Proudian is a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Michelle Switzer

Michelle Switzer is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.