The gig economy is big and here to stay
Tiffany Zadi creates leather shoulder bags, totes, accessories and jewelry. While trolling thrift shops for materials she’ll recycle for her fashions, she’ll snatch up vintage finds and resell them through Etsy. The Little Havana resident also teaches piano to several students, and lately she’s been leading handicraft “experiences” for small groups through Airbnb.
Joseph Nay builds and designs websites, including steady work for a content studio and a digital marketing agency. That’s led to other freelance jobs. The largely self-taught Hollywood resident also creates and edits motion graphics and assists a nonprofit focused on helping Haiti.
“It’s been a fun ride, tiring, but fun,” he said.
Zadi and Nay leverage their skills, experience and passions into a diverse portfolio of multiple work assignments and revenue streams to thrive in the gig economy, a fast-growing worker movement that includes consulting and contracting, temping, freelancing, self-employment, side gigs and on-demand workers. While Zadi and Nay enthusiastically jumped into the gig economy — Zadi gave up a law career to pursue her passions — others are thrust into it by necessity, as full-time jobs have slipped away. Some want the supplemental income as wages remain largely stagnant, while still others use it as a buffer as they ease into retirement.
Experts differ on exactly how large the gig economy is — these jobs don’t fit neatly into categories the government tracks — as well as on the pluses and drawbacks for workers and the economy. But there is consensus that the gig economy is growing faster than traditional employment. And it is here to stay.
A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute Report found that about 27 percent of working-age people in America and Europe engage at least partially in independent work. A 2016 study by the Minneapolis Fed found a 37 percent engagement rate in the U.S., while government economists have estimated that about 40 percent of Americans will be working outside traditional full-time jobs by 2020.
“There’s this myth that the gig economy equals Uber driver,” said Diane Mulcahy, who recently wrote a book on the subject. “If you are not a full-time employee in a full-time job, you are part of the gig economy.”
While gig workers have been around as long as there have been handymen, tutors, writers and musicians, what’s new about the gig economy is how quickly it has infiltrated white-collar professions and industries such as health care, finance, the law and technology, Mulcahy said. She is a private equity adviser for the Kauffman Foundation, which studies and supports entrepreneurship. As proof, she said, look at the growth of national online placement services like Toptal for tech and finance workers and Axiom for lawyers.
The one-two punch of tech advancements and recessionary times accelerated the gig economy.
Just before and during the most recent recession came the launch of several key tech-enabled online services, including ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, Airbnb for lodging and websites helping consumers find people to teach, write, serve or fix something for them. Other websites popped up to pool contract workers, like call-center reps, hospitality workers, lawyers and accountants.
At the same time, corporations were already increasingly using cheaper contract labor that can be deployed when and where they need it.
“In just one generation, the corporate gravy train full of plentiful, progressive, benefit-rich and secure full-time jobs has left the station,” Mulcahy wrote in her book, “The gig economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time off and Financing the Life You Want!”
At the same time, workers are getting used to non-full-time work and even choosing it because of the freedom it can afford, she said. “The gig economy is a new way of work that seems to be working.”
A national survey by the Freelancers Union and online freelance job board Upwork found that two-thirds of the 55 million Americans who freelanced in 2016 did so out of choice, up 10 points from their survey in 2014.
But there is no steady paycheck, no health insurance, no sick pay, and no vacation pay. What happens when there’s too much month left at the end of your money?
Zadi went to the University of Miami for undergraduate studies in music and graduated from law school in New England in 2009, pretty much the worst year to jump into the job market. She snagged some temp law work, but made jewelry on the side. Once she finished one of her law gigs in the fall of 2014, she thought she would take the rest of the year off to focus on her art. “I never went back. I guess I wasn’t into office life.”
She says she lives simply and combines vacation time with trips to trade shows, where she showcases her wares. Because buying a house was important to her, Zadi lived at her parents’ home while she saved for a larger down payment to keep her monthly mortgage payments low.
She’s got the right idea, according to Mulcahy. Gig workers should aim to create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings and much less debt. That may mean downsizing their vision of the American Dream. Increasingly people can access the lifestyle they want rather than own it, such as renting a home and going car-free, Mulcahy said.
Gig workers should aim to create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings and much less debt.
Managing volatile income can come down to ongoing business development and networking. Gig workers must make sure to keep business flowing through the development pipeline and writing contracts in a way that ensures ongoing cash flow rather than a lump sum at the end of a project, Mulcahy said.
Mulcahy also advises building a safety net. Access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act has enabled more people to work in the gig economy.
Saving for retirement is one of the few areas where the independent contractor has an advantage because through IRAs and 401Ks for the self-employed, they can save more quickly and at higher levels than their full-time brethren, she said.
Time management is also a challenge, said numerous gig workers.
“Finding time is always the struggle. I’m working on a freelance project this weekend,” said Nay, who is 31.
For Nay, the gig economy has helped him build his portfolio of skills faster than he might have with a traditional job, as he’s created websites and motion graphics for national retailers, airlines, health care companies and nonprofits.
“I get to move around to different companies, and if one thing falls out, I still have other things I can fall back on — and it keeps me sharp. I don’t think people look so much at where you went to school, but they want to see what you have done.’’
Economic realities are also driving more people into the gig economy to pick up a second source of income alongside their full-time jobs.
Nicole Dominguez, 44 and a mother of three in Miami, works full-time as a docketing clerk at a law firm, but signed up last year for extra work at Liveops, a work-at-home call center platform, to finance a trip to visit her son in Japan, who was in the military. But she took to it and stayed with it and her husband joined, too.
Dominguez sees her gig job as something she could do in retirement, too, and she’s not alone. While millennials are typically identified with gig work, it’s even more prevalent among baby boomers, economists at Harvard and Princeton found. About half of Uber and Lyft drivers are over 50. Airbnb identifies woman age 60-plus as their most successful hosts and the fastest-growing community of providers. DogVacay reports that people over 50 constitute 25 percent of their pet sitters.
For the economy, though, the news isn’t all cheery. The cost of health insurance drives some gig workers to forgo it altogether, a risky financial move for them that also could lead to emergency room treatment at public expense. Home ownership has already started to fall nationally and could fall further. Social Security’s safety net could be stretched with fewer paying into the system at the same levels.
The rise of the gig economy has also put the spotlight on the lack of worker protections. A worker might end up being paid less than minimum wage, if a task takes longer than expected. If the worker can’t find a follow-up gig, he or she isn’t eligible for unemployment benefits. Some companies take advantage by hiring contractors to essentially be full-time employees without paying benefits. There’s even a term for it now: Perma-lancing.
Some U.S. lawmakers have begun to introduce legislation that could form the framework for portable perks, such as parental leave, workers’ compensation and tax advantaged retirement savings. Other moves are also happening, such as in New York, where state lawmakers are considering allowing online job platforms to pay into a benefit fund for workers who use their apps. New York City, meanwhile, has considered surcharges on riders to pay benefits for delivery and ride-hailing service workers.
Yet, this all comes as the economy has already fundamentally changed.
“This is the future of work,” Mulcahy said. “The full-time employee is getting to be the worker of last resort.”