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Where we fit: The Gig Economy

In “Where we fit” we explore the shifting role of people in the marketplace. In this post we discuss how assumptions about gig workers can drive decisions that do not represent real workers’ experiences.

The “gig worker” in our imagination

The explosion of the gig economy, from Uber to Door Dash to TaskRabbit, has solidified in people’s minds the idea of a “gig worker”—an intrepid entrepreneur with grit, hustle, and a car. Gig workers love the flexibility of setting their own hours and being their own bosses. Gig workers fit this part-time gig work in on the side—a “side-hustle”—and use their leftover time to pursue their dreams of whatever their real career will turn out to be. We have heard a lot about the gig worker.

The main problem with the “gig worker” concept is that in practice it serves more as a convenient employer category than as an actual lived experience. The statements about “setting your own schedule” or “being your own boss” align almost exactly with the legal conditions required to be classified an “independent contractor,” but they do not match with what many of these workers say they want.

What do gig workers say?

We recently conducted research with workers for a service company that uses the gig model to recruit and place workers in homes. They hypothesized that messaging leaning into the traditional gig economy themes would resonate with their current workers and help attract potential new workers. When we talked to workers, however, we found something very different.

Though we expected to hear about flexibility and independence, instead we heard about the challenges of relying on gig work as stable employment. We heard about unpredictability and insecurity around missing work. We heard about the need to be able to take a paid day off every now and then. We heard about healthcare. In short, we heard about all the benefits offered to “employees” at a traditional “nine to five” that are absent when it comes to “independent contractors.”

A gig is a step towards a career, not away.

Even if gig work is a side hustle for some, for others it is the most accessible way to quickly get an entry-level job. This can be especially true of jobs that demand a high level of professionalism, such as a long-term in-home service. These workers are not interested in flexibility as much as sustainability. They want to see themselves as professionals with skills, not workers with gigs.

Concepts like “gig worker” can provide colorful imagery but cannot be taken for granted when it comes to understanding what real people want and experience. Only by talking to people can we identify and challenge ideas that do not match reality and develop ideas that authentically represent people’s experiences.

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