C Gopinath

Glorious gigs

C GopinathAmerican Periscope | Updated on August 30, 2018 Published on August 30, 2018

Romanticism of gigs often clashes with reality

Words of praise are being heaped on the gig economy. It is supposed to have energised the labour market and accommodated the needs of the creative and mobile youth.

What are these ‘gigs’? The phrase is meant to represent the jobs that are taken up by many who are self-employed, that are essentially limited contracts for a clearly specified task. But freelance professional work was always around. I know of chartered accountants working in companies who make something extra during the tax season filing returns for friends. Creative women who take time off raising a family do projects from home.

Yes, these would also qualify as gigs in a generic sense, but the glamour of the term is truly associated with what websites and apps have made possible. A website that hosts several photographers allows me to see samples of their work and book one for the family event a week later.

Take Uber. When it first appeared, it appealed to people who had a car and some spare time to provide transportation services and make some money. All you needed was to register with the company, download the app and you are off on your gig! You log in and drive when you want and log off when you need to attend your child’s soccer game or get to class. I have run into doctoral students driving me around and had wonderful conversations with them.

There is also a certain romantic association with this form of employment. You may well visualise independent people, who do not like to be constrained by rigid organisational rules and are independently skilled to pick and choose what they want to do.

But at some point reality hits the glamour. Uber, on a fast growth track, needed vehicles on the road and drivers of conventional taxis thought this was a good opportunity to switch to a growing business. Moreover, it did not make a difference to them whether they rented a taxi to drive from the taxi mafia boss or used their own vehicle. So the Uber driver I now run into is a full-time Uber driver, an immigrant from Ethiopia and this is his only source of living. The reality hit in other ways. The full-time Uber driver now wants to be covered for health insurance, get leave benefits, and some driver unions around the world got sympathetic courts to give them employee status. A victory for labour rights but a death knell for the romanticism of gigs!

For the gig economy to work, there needs to be someone to provide safety nets especially to take care of health insurance. If not the government, one spouse holding a steady full time job with all its attendant benefits can support the gigs of the other spouse. But when children arrive, the need to meet education expenses and so on take the shine off the glamour off a gig living.

In this sense, the situation is not very different from the aura around entrepreneurship. Several of our youth rebel against the rules and politics of organisations and seek their fortunes in entrepreneurship. The papers glorify their success. But we do not read about the large numbers of self-employed who are forced into it due to their inability to secure a ‘good’ job in a ‘good’ company with benefits. They wouldn’t mind the politics and stifling rules for a steady income.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on August 30, 2018

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