A Month of Reflection | 4 | Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work

by Glenn on November 5, 2018

Sarah Kessler. Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.https://i0.wp.com/weltbild.scene7.com/asset/vgw/gigged-222639709.jpg?w=500&ssl=1

This is a book about the “future of work.” In particular, it’s about this relatively new idea of taking work, breaking it down into chunks, and finding people through web programs and apps to do those chunks of works. It’s called the “gig economy,” based on the idea that people don’t really want jobs—those are way too confining—they want flexibility, the ability to pick and choose what they will do, when, and for how much. That’s the idea at least. And it is true of me for this particular season. I read this book to help me understand what’s going on in this part of the economy a little better.

There are a couple of sides to the gig economy. On the company side, the greatest expense in business is often employees. We come with a lot of costs. We want to get paid well. And on top of that we want vacations and time off for sickness and health care and retirement. Employees are expensive. It would be great if you could do business without employees, if you could break the work into small tasks and farm those things out.

Enter the “app.” Kessler introduces us to a number of them. They are fascinating. For example, in 2012, Instagram was purchased by  Facebook for $1 billion. While 30 million people used the service there were only 13 employees managing it (including the co-founders). 13 people “serving” 30 million people. Impressive for the investors.

In terms of the gig economy, the first big app was Uber. Rather than hire employees, Uber found “independent contractors” who were matched up with people needing rides. For Uber this was great. You didn’t hire someone for a shift, you contracted people one drive at a time.

I remember when Uber started. I work with an organization that, three times a year, flies my wife and I to various parts of the country to provide some technological support for their conferences. Originally, when we arrived in a city, they had arranged for a car service to pick us up and take us to the hotel. That was pretty nice. At some point, though, to save money, a car service was no longer provided and we were asked to use Uber (or a taxi) to get to the hotel. The primary benefit of using Uber was reduced cost. (Ultimately, I wasn’t paying for it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to costs.) As a Uber passenger, you could revel in how much cheaper this ride was as compared to a taxi. But it also meant that the other person in the car, the one serving you, was not getting paid very well, especially considering that only a portion of what you were being charged was actually going to the driver.

On the “independent contractor” side of things, there were (are!?—I think some of these things have been or are getting worked out) some problems. The main one is that, as noted above, you’re not paid that well. When you think about the time involved and the fact that you are providing the car (which must be maintained) and the fuel, you’re not getting rich. To make a decent income requires a huge amount of time with considerable overhead. (There was something Uber did early on that seems particularly troubling. They required drivers to have new cars, which makes sense, but if someone didn’t have one, they set up a leasing/purchasing system whereby you could go pick up a new car and Uber would deduct the car payments from your earnings.) There were other things. Uber has a “constantly shifting compensation model.” This means more or less is charged for rides depending on consumer needs. But as a driver you can’t really predict how much you’re going to be paid. When you picked someone up, you had no idea where they wanted to go. If they wanted to drive an hour out of town, the return trip was on your dime. And of course there was the problem of “deactivation.” If your reviews weren’t high enough, if problems about you were reported, you could be left outside the system without recourse.

Uber was the start for many kinds of app-based businesses, so that when people tried to explain a new business, they would often call it “Uber for x.” Kessler notes that by 2015, 4% of adult Americans were earning income through the web.

The gig economy has a fundamental tension. On the one hand workers get freedom to work when they want. On the other hand this work means “insecurity, increased risk, lack of stability, and diminishing workers’ rights.” While the selling point is independence, flexibility, and freedom, this seems to favor the company more than the worker.

This is certainly not an activist sort of book. Kessler is taking a journalist’s perspective, reporting on what she has found. But it seems to me that many companies are behaving disingenuously, treating people as employees while classifying them as contractors. For certain high-level skills, the gig economy may work well for some people. If you’re poor, the gig economy is not going to get you ahead (assuming you are able to manage the technology). Kessler offers this note on the stunning vulnerability of half of our country:

“According to a report from the Federal Reserve released in May 2015, 47% of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense with their savings or credit card. There’s no cushion between those people and a total free fall.”

She quotes one person who says “wealth perpetuates wealth and poverty perpetuates poverty.” I think that’s another way of saying the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there are no easy answers for the problem of what to do about this.

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This summer I started working as “an independent contractor” for a messenger (delivery) service. When you sign up, what the company refers to as “onboarding,” you receive an Independent Contractor (IC) Guide, and the company is very careful to stress that this is not an employee manual and that those of us who drive are not employees. The manual begins:

“Unlike some courier companies that hire drivers and subject them to rigorous rules and grueling schedules, we provide professional services for independent drivers who want the freedom and flexibility of running their own business.

“As an independent contract driver, you choose when you would like to drive and how you would like to best meet your client’s needs. [The Company] is NOT your employer; we are YOUR CLIENT.”

While it doesn’t take much to get started with this company (I would say “to have this client begin to work for me,” as the IC Guide emphasizes), somehow the wording of that second paragraph doesn’t seem completely accurate in terms of capturing the situation. I do most of my work for one particular company that has contracted the messenger service to manage their deliveries. Both the company (albeit through the messenger service) and the messenger service give all sorts of direction for how the work will be performed (or, I assume, I won’t be working).

I do think it is helpful to think of myself as a business in competition with other businesses, but the way you begin working does feel a lot like applying for a job. And if the application process isn’t very strenuous with this company, it’s primarily because no chance is being taken on me. If I do the work well, I can keep working as much and as long as I like (although there’s a lot of uncertainty—no guarantees—in that “as much”). If I don’t, then the messenger service can simply choose not to work with my company. “I lost a client” does sound a lot better than “they fired me.”

The work I do is not terribly sophisticated. It is like any other delivery service where you are given some packages, you deliver these packages (because it’s “my business” I use my car and my gas to do so), and you get signatures from the people receiving the packages. This doesn’t require a lot of skill. Basically, you need a car, you need to pass a drug screening and a criminal background check, and you need to be able to use a delivery tracking app (for which you are charged $20/month).

I’ve noticed a different sense of competition in me as I do this. In a traditional job, you’re trying to please your employer. If the boss is happy, you’re happy. This work brings out a different sort of competitiveness in me. I want differentiate myself (my company) from other people (other companies). Working at this kind of skill level, it’s relatively simple to do so. I’ve noticed that if you can be where you say you will be, dress presentably (there are no uniforms, because that would indicate we are employees, but it’s interesting to see how sloppy it can look when the standard of dress is casual and left to individual choice), follow directions, and be polite (any sort of personal charm is, I think, a bonus), you can find some consistent work with this company. There is some technology involved, though, and it’s sad to see how some people simply don’t have the wherewithal to manage it.

At first it was a little challenging trying to establish anything like a schedule. Jobs are posted onto the app at which point whoever selects the job first gets it. So you need to have your phone in front of you constantly so that you can be ready to take it when a job gets posted. This is stressful and it makes it tough to do anything else while you remain ready to click. Eventually I was able to take some regular/recurring routes and I now no longer have anxiety around grabbing jobs as they pop up. (I think some of this happened because of the differentiation I described earlier. Someone who will remain nameless, as this individual began with “You didn’t hear it from me,” told me about a route that was opening up. My inquiries about that route resulted in regular hours, which are a blessing.)

I feel fortunate in that the work I am doing right now is on a regular schedule (I have regular routes six days a week) that I am able to manage, but for many people involved in the gig economy, it’s not like that. They either can’t get enough work or they are overworking, neither of which don’t feel sustainable.

Kessler’s book gives a broader understanding of this field, but more importantly, gives some insight into what it’s like for people trying to make a living in this way.

I don’t feel like I’m getting ahead financially, but think I am very fortunate in that I drive things and not people around town. That means I have some control over what I am listening to. For some time, now, I have for the most part given up listening to both news and talk radio as well as music, and begun listening to books. I consider this a real gift right now. So that while I am not paid spectacularly well, I can frame it as “I am getting paid to listen to books,” which feels pretty good right now.