“Gig.” You’ve heard it mentioned at afterwork drinks, debated on employment sites, and beaten to death by pundits. It may have a new name now, but gigs have been around as long as humans have been paid for “services rendered.” What we now call gigs used to be referred to as part-time, freelance, or consulting.
Gigs can be full- or part-time, or even one-off projects. There are gigs to be found at the highest professional levels and in the minimum wage “service on-demand” sector. The essential qualifier is that workers are not employees with benefits but independent contractors. More and more of us are participating in the gig economy, creating a robust market for the millions of work-for-hire individuals.
How many in the workforce are doing gig work? According to the Gig Economy Data Hub, a joint project of Cornell University’s Institute of Labor Relations and the Aspen Institute, the percentage is around 30%. However, Ernst & Young consultant David Jolley points out that only about 10% of those are depending on gigs for their entire income.
Gigging was originally musicians’ slang for a performance. It has come to mean so much more. Gigs are real work, sought after by both employers and workers. Some of us gig because we like the freedom and flexibility, or because we’re sick of smelling the IT departments’ lunches. Employers may be trying to save money by not hiring a full-time employee, or need a skilled person for a set amount of time. More platforms connecting workers to businesses are going up all the time. Some are highly specialized, including those for lawyers and doctors, restaurant workers, and creatives.
As the numbers grow, employers are increasingly dipping into the marketplace of temps. The gig economy has also been a godsend for legions of entrepreneurs: “A fast-moving startup can secure talent as it needs it, outsource more quotidian tasks like payroll, and stay lean and mean.”
For gig workers, work-life balance can be improved or turn sour. The money can be great if you find the right spot or barely a subsistence. A joint study from the Freelancers Union and the gig platform Upwork found that 63% of freelancers had to regularly take money from savings, while others find that they can make a comfortable living with piecemeal work.
“You have to hustle to find gigs,” says Mary Elizabeth Emory, an accountant in Colorado Springs. “Because I have a flexible schedule, I can spend more time with my kids, which makes up for the burden of constantly looking for projects. And I don’t have to sit next to some jerk who will not stop talking.”
Whether or not you can tolerate gigging, much less succeed at it, depends a lot on your attitude, according to experts. Researcher Lyndsey Cameron says that gig workers can feel either exploited or empowered:
“If you’re a first-generation immigrant expecting to work your way up and had done low-paid, low-skill work before, you’re more likely to feel empowered,” she said. “The people who feel more exploited are ones who had been laid off from manufacturing or pink-collar jobs and wanted to stop their downward social mobility.”
Academics, experts, and consultants all say the gig trend is here to stay and are projecting growth across all professions and age groups. One demographic in particular is taking advantage of the gig economy: seniors. Angela Heath, author of Do the Hustle Without the Hassle, said, “seniors are where the gig economy is headed.”
Some seniors are gigging because they don’t have enough money for total retirement; others because they enjoy work; and still others are sought out by firms looking for specific experience and expertise. Heath reminds us that the gig economy encompasses far more than Uber drivers. “There’s a continuum of gig platforms, including some for the nation’s top [companies].”