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Is freelancing really the wave? Why the gig economy isn’t what it seems

As we approach closer and closer to 2019, many of us will be conjuring up answers in anticipation for when people will ask what our new year’s resolution will be.

For some, the new year will prompt one to evaluate whether their current job will enable them to sign up to that gym membership they saw advertised, enroll in a language class, go on vacation later in the year, or have weekly face-mask and scented candle riddled self-care nights that you are ready to promote as your new year’s resolution.

What this is all meant to say, is that while the culture around new year’s eve encourages us to think about our career goals are, our finances and future, many of us even before this time of year, are deciphering ways to achieve that crucial work-life balance.

People want money, but also flexibility in their day-to-day life. To an extent, the upsurge of the gig economy corresponds with the widespread desire for flexibility and a general pushback on the traditional 9-5 workday model. It is one of the reasons that over the last decade we have seen massive changes to the labor market in the West.

In this new labor market, there has been a gradual decline in the number of stable and permanent forms of employment contracts. Currently, in the United States, more than one-third of U.S. workers (57 million people) are in the gig economy.

Indeed, alternative work arrangements are attractive to people, young and old, as a source of supplementary income, whether it is to pay off student loans or to relieve credit debt that has built up over the years.

It’s also appealing amongst stay at home parents whom after their partner or spouse come home from work, take over the ‘shift’ of taking care of the kids, and thereby free up the other partner to work nights to further support the family.

Plus, let’s not forget single parents who also need that extra income to accompany child support or other states financial assistance.

If you are a writer like myself, you may find that working from home or at a coffee shop is a better location to avoid encountering that dreaded “writer’s block” that is for some, more likely to arise in a fluorescent-lit office or a co-working space.

But of course, let’s not leave out the biggest gig economy platforms that have been instrumental in the rise of part-time or temporary employment for workers.

Companies such as Uber, Lyft, Etsy, Amazon Flex, Air BNB,, Seamless, Task Rabbit, Etsy, Turo, and so many others, are essentially changing the way people work. 

With this type of employment arrangement, we can work at our own leisure and have the freedom to choose where and when we want to work. We can organize our daily routine; on our terms. What could be wrong with that, right?

While the title of this new economy may have the allure of the lifestyle of a musician — working venue to venue, location to location, job to job — for many, the reality is far from the life of a thriving artist and creative.

While this form of employment offers flexibility, this temporary and fleeting form of employment is riddled with disadvantages.

Unlike traditional permanent forms of employment, workers who take on a variety of part-time or temp jobs, are devoid of any basic level of coverage and crucial employment benefits. 

There are no workers compensation, no penalty rates, no paid sick leave, no holiday pay and no parental leave. Largely on minimum wages, people are left to pay their own social security tax, as well as encounter serious difficulty in trying to obtain a mortgage or saving for retirement. Hell, even the prospect of making rent is uncertain. 

People sew together jobs from here and there, as means to make a viable living wage. For others, this type of employment is their full source of income. In other words, they are completely dependent on it.

In short, it is a lifestyle that is precarious and highly stress inducing.

The language around the rise of freelancing and self-employment often romanticizes the gig economy as the most favorable way artists, creatives and entrepreneurs can optimize the kind of lifestyle they want.

But one only has to cite the recent Fast Company article to show that many fail to notice or recognize that the rise of the service economy and self-employment is not exclusively contingent on “choice.”

While the rise of temporary, part-time, freelance jobs are figured in the media as a revolutionary entrance point to worker freedom, morale, and prosperity, this language is a distraction from the crude income inequity and labor exploitation that has come to define this form of employment. 

The truth is, service companies like Uber, Lyft, Amazon, etc. are able to cut costs by having their workers under the title as “contractors” as opposed to “employees,” and thereby evade providing workers with employment protections and benefits as offered through traditional and permanent employment contracts.

Given that food service jobs render workers exposed to high risk by driving through dangerous and busy city streets, the idea of workers having no security benefits is alarming.

It’s not surprising that Uber drivers in London and NYC have organized protests and staged strikes to demand a better living wage while also drawing attention to the fact that drivers also have to cover their own car insurance, gas, and vehicle maintenance.

Many will credit the rise of the gig economy and self-employment, by centering on the desire for convenience and on-demand services and access to goods that are enabled through the plethora of smartphone apps. Yet, I vehemently push back against the claim that the gig economy was inevitable.

Rather, I view it as a direct consequence of larger economic forces. In other words, the gig economy is the symptom of the rise of technology under neoliberalism.

It is intentionally catered to rampant Western individualism and thereby invites people into a free-for-all marketplace, where the success of startup businesses and other entrepreneurial ventures must undergo years of development. That is to say, where your initial idea must contend against other startups in a survival-of-the-fittest like environment.  

While the gig economy is sometimes used interchangeably with the label of “the sharing economy,” this new economy and the labor market has not engendered the much-needed mass redistribution of wealth, despite what these titles suggest. 

Though the gig economy and alternative work arrangements are here to stay, that doesn’t mean fundamental changes are not needed, to ensure that workers are protected, receive basic benefits and finally, are not exploited.