Opinions

Is The Gig Economy Really That Bad?

There’s no shortage of negative reports around the gig economy, but very little is said about its benefits.

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There’s no shortage of negative reports around the gig economy, but very little is said about its benefits.

Opinions

Is The Gig Economy Really That Bad?

There’s no shortage of negative reports around the gig economy, but very little is said about its benefits.

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Hear the term ‘gig economy’ and you probably think low-paid, exploited workers, with no security and employment rights, controlled by a few tech giants in Silicon Valley. We’ve seen no end of reports on what’s wrong with this new flexible way of working.

But we’re often just given one side of the story, with little thought to its benefits and potential for the future.

A snapshot of the gig economy

Self-employment has exploded in the last few years. A recent report by McKinsey estimated that 162 million people across the US and Europe – that’s 20 to 30 per cent of the working age population -  are engaging in some form of independent work. Some commentators predict this will rise to 50 per cent by 2020, and I’d wager they’re probably right.

Of course, not all these people rely on gig working for their sole income. McKinsey found that for around 44 per cent it’s their primary job, while 56 per cent use it to supplement their salary.

And far from what many reports would have you believe, for three quarters (74 per cent) of UK gig workers, it’s their preferred way of working. They relish being their own boss, having control over their hours and feel more creative and engaged as a result.

Even more surprising is that currently only 15% of gig workers have used a digital platform to facilitate their work, a figure that is growing rapidly. Imagine how many people will get involved once these online platforms become more commonplace and accepted.

UberEats

Disgruntled Uber and Deliveroo couriers are a small fraction of the wider gig economy

That’s not to say the picture is entirely rosy and there is a minority of gig workers who don’t have any option and are struggling to make ends meet. But rather than looking at gig working as a problem to solve, why don’t we view it as an opportunity to harness, with the potential to revolutionise the workplace and society, at all levels?

Flexible work opportunities for economically inactive individuals   

Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that seven out of 10 unemployed and economically inactive individuals – such as carers, retirees, stay-at-home parents and those with health or mobility issues – would re-enter the workforce, if they could do so flexibly.

The gig economy gives them the ability to do this, and many are already taking advantage. McKinsey found these groups already make up 40 per cent of casual earners.

I’ve seen first-hand the benefits gig working offers to parents – primarily Mums - enabling them to re-enter the workforce on their own terms after having a baby. In fact, research by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) found that one in seven of all UK freelancers are now working Mums - a massive 70 per cent rise since 2008.

It’s can also be a great way for retirees to stay active and boost their income into old age, with McKinsey finding that 14 per cent are already doing so. With an ageing population and declining pension pots, it’s one way of reducing that burden, without the pressures of a full-time job, or commuting to the office every day.

Reviving employment outside London

While the gig economy is currently focused around big cities such as London, it has the potential to bring new employment opportunities to diverse areas across the country, with technology enabling individuals to work from anywhere, serving businesses all around the world. Location is no longer a factor in making a living.

It offers an alternative for those areas suffering from the long-term decline in manufacturing and the rise in automation, bringing jobs and money into these communities. On The Work Crowd, we have freelancers based all over the UK - even some further afield - and they have no problems finding remote projects to suit them.

With more investment in the right training and new skills, plus more government-private partnerships to invest in infrastructure and connectivity, gig working could hold the key to rebalancing the economy away from the London ‘bubble’.

Pottery in Stoke

Flexible work could help rejuvenate old industrial powerhouses like Stoke-on-Trent

Tackling skills shortages

Finally, with recent research by the Institute of Directors (IOD) revealing that four in ten UK businesses are worried about skills shortages – particularly with Brexit on the horizon – the gig economy offers an army of on-demand workers from across the globe. So many jobs can be done remotely these days, that this could be a viable option for numerous industries.

Many are already predicting a future where companies will be made up of a core team of project managers, supported by a loose network of specialist external providers. It may seem far-fetched but it’s already happening, giving many businesses the flexibility and agility they need to drive innovation and growth

Ironing out the issues

Of course, the gig economy is not a perfect system and many of the negative reports out there raise real issues that must be addressed. We need some way of giving more employment rights and greater job security to gig workers, whether through a union or employment pool approach, similar to the construction industry.

Public policy also needs to catch up, with regulations that are relevant to this way of working, protecting workers’ rights, without stifling innovation. I for one am looking forward to hearing the outcomes of the Taylor Review and its conclusions of how the gig economy can be made to work for everyone – business, consumers and individuals.

But it’s time to look forward. Jobs and the workplace are changing irreversibly. We all need to change with them.

Alice Weightman is founder and CEO of The Work Crowd.

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Is The Gig Economy Really That Bad?

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