Employment Towards a Gig Economy - Understanding the changing nature of work
The new World Development Report has been released, and with it comes important insights about the nature of work and the economy in the 21st century. This is the economy we will spend our lives in, and many of our assumptions about how working, well, works need to be challenged.
Possibly the largest shift that needs to be talked about is the rise of the “gig economy”. Companies are no longer offering multi-decade careers as they did for previous generations. Instead, workers might contract their services to a firm for just a few weeks or months - or a couple of days. Work now looks less like a career of service to one company and more like a distinct series of individual gigs, where you have to be your own secretary, public relations manager and accountant, all while doing your actual job as well.
It can be tough to juggle, but the benefits to the worker are immense. Self-employment offers unrivalled flexibility in your schedule, so why not spend a week at the mountain in the winter, skiing with friends? Technology allows you to take your work with you, so why not visit your family for a week and work at their place?
Even more importantly, the gig economy facilitates you to be a lifelong learner, constantly engaging in different activities and learning new skills. That is something a traditional 9-5 could never offer, so if you’re interested in being a part of it all, you need to understand how it works and know how to navigate yourself towards success in this brave new economy.
The gig economy is taking over
It definitely sounds cool when you say you’ve got side hustles going on, but the astounding growth of the gig economy shows that it’s about more than just social credibility. Gig economy statistics are overwhelming: a Gallup poll tells us that in the United States, 57 million people work within it, or 36% of the total workforce. Kelly Services, a global firm specialising in workplace solutions, estimates that 31% of all workers in the world are taking part in the gig economy.
These workers are your Uber and Ola drivers, the cleaners who work at your university or workplace, the designers behind the bajillion or so ads you see every day. They’re also the university students who walk dogs or nanny children on the side, the business executives who consult for short periods and a lot of money, and me - the freelance writer behind this piece.
The economy has changed a lot in a short timeframe, and a large portion of this is due to technology. The advent of mobile devices with 24/7 internet connectivity and cloud-based data storage means that many of us can now work from anywhere. The result is increased mobility and flexibility for workers - at the expense of job security. By definition, the gig economy is transient and being able to navigate it properly is essential to avoid getting left out in the cold.
Become a lifelong learner
Employers tell us the number one benefit of the gig economy is the freedom to hire the best person for each job on an individual basis. Since the nature of work is changing so fast now, this is more important than ever - a permanent, full-time contract now may not seem attractive to a company who aren’t sure what their business will look like in three years time.
The thrust of this for workers is that adapting to the changing climate of your industry is a must. Learning always occurs on the job with the unique challenges that each gig poses, but it’s also reaffirmed by ongoing tertiary education. With the gig economy comes the growing role of non-traditional qualifications. Education providers offer short term, flexible study options that can teach or refresh specific skills, for example, a coding language or entrepreneurship.
Be a savvy self-starter
Speaking of entrepreneurship, having a bit of enterprise education behind you is one way to secure your success. Literally starting and running small start-up companies is increasingly popular, but learning the theory behind doing so is equally applicable to working as a freelancer and will help you to pursue, find and execute gig economy jobs.
Entrepreneurs are not risk-averse - quite the opposite, in fact. Taking risks benefit the freelancer, since staying too safe can lead to a lack of opportunities and personal development. Progressing in your career isn’t as simple as turning up to your 9-5 and working hard anymore. You need to be wearing different hats every day, networking with professional contacts, building a personal brand on social media and continuing your education.
Keep yourself busy on the side
A key feature of the prototypical gig economy worker is the ability to generate ‘side hustles’ - these can be anything you’re interested in and don’t necessarily pertain directly to your main line of work. The flexibility afforded to you by being your own boss allows you to fit other things into your day, so if you’re a graphic designer, but you’re also interested in NGO management, you can volunteer some of your time each week to sit on the board of a local non-profit or charitable organisation.
As well as being personally fulfilling and stopping you from laying around at home when you’ve got less work going, side hustles are a great way to make contacts, learn new skills and hopefully findnew things to do that can get you paid. Side hustles can also function as pure income support to allow you to maintain your lifestyle as a freelancer - a little money coming in each week from delivering UberEats or making coffees stabilises your finances. Plus, anything that gets you out in the world interacting with people can lead to opportunities, which can often come from unexpected places.
Get the little things right
So far, we’ve gone over a lot of general information about the gig economy. You’ll also need to be clued up on the nuts and bolts of what being self-employed is all about. One of the major questions is around the gig economy and taxes - when you’re responsible for paying your own, getting it wrong can land you with an unwelcome tax bill at the wrong time.
You’ll often be working as a contractor, which means paying contractor tax. In New Zealand, you’ll be required to register with the IRD as an employer (since you’re self-employed) and pay withholding tax at the rate specified for the activity you’re doing. Keeping track of your taxes in an Excel spreadsheet over the year will really save you from a headache at the end of the financial year.
Personal organisation extends beyond taxes, too. There are a lot of pertinent questions to consider: where are you going to work? Will you be distracted at home, and would you rather hire an office space or studio somewhere else? How will you meet professional contacts? How will you go about navigating networking events and booking follow-ups?
It’s a good idea to keep your planner in the Cloud, so it’s accessible from everywhere and can’t be lost. In the gig economy, technology is your friend, so the importance of having a reliable phone and computer can’t be overstated.
Be mindful of the long game
Being a part of the gig economy has its ups and downs. Sometimes, you’ll have plenty of interesting and profitable work, and other times you’ll feel lost, sitting around with nothing to do while your friends are out working and being productive. At times like these, you’ll find comfort in knowing that in an overall sense, you’re getting where you need to be.
Along with technology, the popularity of the gig economy has come simply from people’s preferences. Diane Mulcahy, an expert on the gig economy, tells us that 75% of the people in the gig economy are there mostly because they want to be. Running your own life can be more fulfilling than working for someone else, even if the security afforded by a full-time job contract can bring you the kind of future with a white picket fence, two kids and a mortgage quite reliably.
If you’re going to be a part of the gig economy, you’ll need to keep in mind what you’re doing it for. The long game is about the personal freedom to develop yourself and your skills in the way you want, working for who you want to work for and impacting the world in different areas. Clearly, it’s a lifestyle that many prefer to the traditional way of work, despite the downsides.
The traditional 9-5 may never go away completely, and for some, it still remains the preferable option. But most of us will become a part of the gig economy at some point, even if just for a little bit. Being savvy with the changing nature of work is invaluable, so keep one ear to the ground at all times and always be on the lookout for that next opportunity.
By Jack Buckley, Wellington.