Can you GIG it?
The woman in the grocery line? She’s a freelance copywriter, substitute teacher and life coach. Your neighbor? He’s an independent management consultant who books gigs for his band. The comedian you’re watching on-stage has a CPA and a 5-star rating on Upwork. Your waiter works handyman gigs. And your Uber driver? She takes call-outs on weekends to pay off her MBA faster.
Welcome to what theorists have dubbed “the gig economy.” And some of them say this non-W-2 economy is the future of work. Though the size of this alternative or contingent workforce is difficult to measure formally, some experts believe that a trend representing just 2-4% of the US population in 2005 will burgeon to 40% by 2020.1Currently, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates “up to 162 million people across the United State and Europe (or, 20-30% of the working population) engage in some form of independent work.” And an estimated 50% of European gig workers are under 35.2
John Bevell, ’12, (Pictured, right) has seen this wave from afar and plans to ride it. He envisions a future in which, “side gigs are so common they’re not even an issue…you’re doing it because you want to upskill professionally”, carve out the time to pursue a dream, or just generate extra cash. While there is no standard definition, a generally-accepted understanding is that “gigs” are single projects or tasks that independent contractors are hired on-demand to complete. Gigs can last 4 hours or 18 months. John adds that gigging is “about three things that are relevant to the Thunderbird community: flexibility, autonomy and control.”
Why? Because in the gig economy, work is disaggregated from jobs. Therefore, work can be done outside the cubicle and away from the corporate office. Some rules are simple: performance trumps attendance. Portfolios outweigh resumes. And experience may obsolesce branded MBAs. If you’ve ever called yourself an independent consultant, a freelancer or a contractor, you’ve gigged. If you’ve ever cobbled together multiple part-time income streams through selling goods, services or labor, you may be a gigger (i.e., Giggers are those who get paid only when they work; this does not include entrepreneurs, who build systems that make money for them).
While the use of “gig” on this scale is fresh and catchy, the concept isn’t new. Artists, designers, IT experts, construction and extraction workers, actors, life/career coaches, media/communication experts, and transportation laborers have been “gigging it” for decades. Gigging traditionally keeps to the side-hustle for most. However, more and more workers are pursuing gigs as a 100% self-employment option.
Therefore, two recent sea changes deserve attention: First, the opportunity for workers to connect with these jobs through websites or mobile applications (“apps”). Second, the reality that more employers are choosing giggers over W-2 full-timers for corporate roles that used to build careers.
The 1099 Goes Viral
Yesterday’s giggers connected with jobs through professional networking, referrals and advertising. Today’s – and tomorrow’s – giggers broaden that reach through technology and social media. Uber, Airbnb and the UK’s Deliveroo were vanguards of this sharing-turned-gig economy. Now, new online marketplaces sprout daily, offering gigs as specific or general as the people who use them. Sites such as TaskRabbit, Freelancer, FlexJobs, MetroButler, TinkerEd, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Rover, Fiverr, Voices 1-2-3, Lyft, Babierge, Efynch, Shiftgig and Hermes all offer varied income opportunities based on the skills, locations and availability of the freelancer.
In true Thunderbird style, gigging ignores borders when it comes to finding talent. Living in Lima? Work remotely for firms in Johannesburg, Singapore or New York. “Right now,” John Bevell explains, “countries are so focused on physical people in the country – H1-B visas – tax dollars earned in-country. That’s why we have this concept of illegal aliens….because they’re doing work here…Well, the future is going to be ‘jobs everywhere’.”
Piecemeal existence? "Since the 2008 crash, jobs that provide a secure income have become harder to come by...the notion of a 'career' is being eroded, with young people often working a patchwork of different occupations.” – The Guardian
The question is, jobs for whom? Gen-Xers and Boomers who have relied upon the promise of employment-based career growth may find the gig economy a betrayal. Millennials, as many journalists have written, are finding it flexible, but also unreliable.
But time – and generations – march on. There’s a new cohort entering the market that few are talking about: those born between 1996 and 2010 called "Generation Z." The ease with which Generation Z (ages 7 to 21 in 2017) consumes shared economy services, navigates mobility and manages social media may enable them to tolerate flexibility we previous generations can barely imagine.
Growing up Gigging
John Bevell sees an overlooked market in the teen worker segment: “There were 7 million high school graduates last year in the United States alone.” Using that figure, approximately 28 million young people each year are in high school. And what is one rite of passage at that age, but the first job?
Teens of all generations have gigged: babysitting, dog walking, and lawn mowing are traditional mainstays. At age 16 in most US states, those teens switch to weekly paychecks - usually in retail or food service. Such low-skilled jobs can teach soft skills such as responsibility, John believes; but they don’t cultivate marketable hard skills. So of course, when John interviews current high school students who hold busboy and cashier jobs, they tell him, “it’s not where I want to be long-term.”
“It’s not where I want to be long-term.” A subset of the 120 high school students who participated in John’s November 2017 focus groups around the gig economy.
Good thing too, because those jobs are declining. In the gigged future, today’s teens and undergraduates, John says, will need portfolios, not resume fillers. His solution? A massive new platform to match young people (his first target audience) with gigs that align to their actual career interests. He calls it gigapult. No capital letters needed. John and co-founders Brittany Rislund and J.Michael Edwards-Toepel seek to partner with education-based corporations such as Pearson, and youth-oriented non-profits such as Year Up. According to John, “The full 'beta' of the platform will be ready by fall 2018.”
John likens gigapult to the “tech version of flipping burgers.” Skratch.co and Teeniors are potential competitors; however, “these don't match teens…with the type of companies they will want to work for in 5 years.” And that’s what makes gigapult unique. Completing gigs successfully now will give Generation Z relevant, verifiable professional work experience along a visible path – BEFORE they choose a college program. Or not.
In the traditional model, education precedes occupation. “I am flipping the model upside down,” John says. “Instead of learning then doing,” youth giggers will first “do,” then “they will know what to learn.” The question gigapult may help his future customers answer is, “What do I actually NEED to know” if I go to college? Or not? “Compare the gig-folio to today's LinkedIn.” John says. “On LinkedIn one might have work history and share how great they are, and that may or may not be true. In the gig-folio a person's work is validated by every gig they complete. Over time this demonstrates ability and gives them legitimacy in a way that today's LinkedIn cannot.”
The issue of legitimacy of course begs the question of blockchain, and John expects it to play a role as this economy develops: ”where every job you complete is…on there, it’s valid, and everyone sees it.”
Like John, many workplace experts believe “There will be a 'breaking point' where hiring full-time, life-long employees doesn't make sense.” Therefore, “gig work will be a normal piece of our lives in 5 years.” Diane Mulcahy, a senior analyst at the Kauffman Foundation and a lecturer at Babson College, echoes this refrain in her book The Gig Economy, part how-to guide and part economic argument.
John says that gigging “is going to disrupt where people decide to live, and how they decide to live. You think of Silicon Valley and everyone’s crammed into this place. But what if you didn’t have to do that? What if you could get a Silicon Valley salary and live in Phoenix, AZ? Make $300K a year and live very comfortably?”
This is indeed one huge promise of the gig economy; but does it deliver? With technology, giggers compete on a global scale. An employer needing a PPT deck, for example, may not wish to hire a Bangor, Maine, based designer at $150/hour when a similarly-skilled designer in Manila or Sao Paulo asks a fraction of that rate. As manufacturers have chased cheaper global labor, so now can all employers chase cheaper global skillsets. Says one Oxford professor, “The pool of labor for such digital work is for all intents and purposes infinite.”
Jobs vs. work:.“For individual workers, [the] tension between the freedom of freelancing and the security of the 9-to-5 may become a core issue. “There’s certainly something empowering about being your own boss,” Arun Sundararajan of the NYU Stern School of Business wrote in The Guardian. “[…] But there’s also something empowering about a steady pay cheque, fixed work hours and company-provided benefits.” - OECD Observer
Even with the numbers seeking escape from untrustworthy corporate cultures, is the gig economy truly inevitable? Bloomerberg says, “maybe not.” And Fortune makes a stronger case against it. By definition, the gig economy is “work untethered.” Yes, gig workers may fly free of the typical 40-hour workweek or 9-5 schedule. What is discussed less often is that worker wings get clipped. Without employer-based safety nets like health benefits, retirement plans, and worker protections, where is the skin in the game for employers? For CEOs, where is the sense of community and shared mission that builds the cultures that make companies great? Only time will tell.
Brave New World
For now, John says, “We already see this [change] happening just in terms of people jumping from job to job.” For some, the gig economy may offer a way out of the cubicle jungle. For others? “I would say the future will belong to those people that are nimble and flexible in terms of what they learn and how they build their brand…as opposed to people that are stuck in the old mindset of 'I need to get a job and stay there forever.'”
Whatever the shape of our economy to come, it won’t happen overnight. “What I do think is ironic,” John admits, “is that I took a W-2 job so that I could have the financial resources and time to build a gig platform.” A common gigger tale in our current economy. “The traditional [W-2] infrastructure is in place and will be for some time. [But] gigapult is looking to grow a new [career] infrastructure from the ground up.”
When asked to model a gig-folio path to his current Director-level career position, John responded, “That's a tough one, because I got to where I am in a non-gig world.”
1US Dept of Labor – Bureau of Labor Stats
To contact John Bevell: email@example.com
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