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Tipping Point for the Gig Economy?

Posted on | December 13, 2009 | 2 Comments

Summary: The latest unemployment figures and related commentary suggest the economy is recovering far faster than the jobs will. What’s on the other side is a new workforce. But we won’t get there from without a complete re-assessment of the role, definition and value of “labor.”

The national numbers tell us bleakly that more people are under-employed and/or working two or more jobs to make ends meet. Some 20 percent of the country is now either unemployed or underemployed. Richard Crane is one of those. He represents what may be the new normal, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (Working Two Jobs and Still Underemployed).

“That’s all I do — every day — I just keep working. I’ve got to. I’m not going to lose everything I have.”

We’re at a tipping point in this recessionary cycle. A tipping point in GDP trend lines, a tipping point for frayed emotions and personal bank accounts and and tipping point toward a new and more productive work force.

Pump house fallingI’m an optimist, but even an optimist’s faith wavers occasionally. For me, it wavers when I see another note from a brave friend marking another month passed without a job; it wavers when a friend loses a job, gets a new job after a long search and then gets downsized again; it wavers when I read the words “there’s nothing out there” from people who have looked for work since before Obama’s election.

Most recessions are marked by sector-specific downturns. This one has been indiscriminate in flattening industries and careers everywhere. It favors no age or race. It humbles all. Whatever lies on the other side will be astonishing growth, but this transformation will take its time, regardless of our finger-strumming, foot-tapping insistence that someone get this train up to steam again.

Fear, Uncertainty…Anger

In this interregnum, the fear and anger are palpable. An old, soft-spoken colleague is way past railing at incompetent publishing-industry executives. He’s pissed that a way of life–careful, considered, fair and paid-for news analysis–is vanishing like the Plains Indians.

Another is angry that the experience of his Boomer generation is being discounted to lower-level, lower-paying jobs or discounted straight to zero (unemployment)…that cowards with spread sheets masquerade as managers as the clock ticks closer to tolling midnight…that no one returns your calls or replies to your emails, a simple courtesy from a forgotten time.

This is the human side of the Great Recession. We’ve come to grudgingly acknowledge that the ride up is as exciting as the ride down is terrifying, but as the ride doesn’t seem to be ending we’re getting understandably upset.

But it does end.

New Normal

I’ve written several posts about the Gig Economy and how the future is shaping up. Jody Greenstone Miller, CEO of the Business Talent Group, weighed on this topic in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal (Temporary Workers and the 21st Century Economy).

“…this surge in temporary workers is not only good news for the economy, it’s the future of the 21st century labor market.”

She argues that it’s not just forward-thinking companies that are interested in this framework, but top business talent.

“In one situation, a VP-level executive we placed was developing his own new business. He valued the way a part-time senior role allowed him to support his family while he worked on his own project. For others, working in a series of temporary assignments may be their preferred full-time occupation.”

Some will read this and think Miller is applying lipstick to a pig, that the future is a sooty, neo-Dickensenian netherworld where the masters of capital regain control over labor after throwing off the shackles of a century of unionization and suffocating government regulation.

I don’t. We, as a society, always extrapolate our present circumstances too far into the future, both good and bad (remember “Dow 30,000”???). Life always improves.

Consider one aspect of history:

  • The Industrial Revolution was culturally and politically wrenching, no doubt about it. But the average person used it as a way to leave behind the punishing cycles and cruel uncertainties of farm life and build stable, almost predictable work environments in cities. Our transformation will have similar benefits. One of them will be to give us back something we have increasingly surrendered in the past generation: Control over our own time.

But the permanent Gig Economy and Miller’s vision won’t happen without more cultural transformation. First and foremost, companies need to excise the words “contractor” and “freelancer” from their vocabularies. These have definitions today that carry a stigma that can’t survive in the new economy. Contractor and full-time employee need to be considered peers (in fact the reverse may occur: full-time employee in some cases may become stigmatized as the Gig Economy mavens come off the bench to hit game winning homers in the bottom of the ninth).

We need to reconsider the boundaries, definition and value of labor. And we need to understand the future is never as bad we think it might be, and the past was never as wonderful as we remember.

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2 Responses to “Tipping Point for the Gig Economy?”

  1. Lou Covey
    December 14th, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    I’ve been part of this gig economy long before the current or even previous economic downturn. In fact, I’ve experienced 6 separate downturns since entering the workforce. Going all the way back to Nixon (which I still have nightmares over). The one thing I have learned is you can’t put your faith in a creation of mankind. Eventually it all falls apart.

    Blessed are the flexible… for they shall not be broken.

  2. bfuller9 (Brian Fuller)
    December 15th, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    Twitter Comment

    Have we reached A tipping point for the Gig Economy? [link to post]

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