It’s easy to think the gig economy is a new concept. It reflects a modern society where rigid work and jobs for life are a thing of the past. The future? Well that’s all about felxibility.

You want to change career?
Why not. 
You want to work hours that suit your lifestyle and circumstances?
Why not.

But shock, shock, horror, this isn’t something new. Far from it. In a recent article by Tawny Paul, the senior lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Exeter (read the article here), she uncovers the diaries of men working in Britain during the 18th century. The diaries offer a fascinating insight into the lives of three middle-class men and how they earned their money — with each having three jobs in varying industries.

They earned a modest income but the worries that often come from the gig economoy — protection, stability, uncertainty — were all prevalent then.

The men didn’t necessarily take their jobs just for the money either. Paul noted:

Money was a concern, but the diaries make clear that, like today, work was also about more than pay. The experiences of these three men show that people chose their work because different jobs offered different forms of fulfilment. Some tasks earned them money, but other roles gave them social status. In some cases, they even judged fulfilment and the status these jobs gave them as highly as material gain.

The opportunity for networking, building reputations and power could be equally as important as the cash earned. In fact, the value of work in terms of status and income could have an inverse relationship. Parsons made most of his money from his stone-cutting business rather than his intellectual pursuits, but it was his scientific experimentation that conferred the most status. That status, in turn, helped him get contracts.

Historical accounts of the gig economy remind us that we need to think about work as more than a form of wage earning, but as something crucial to our social and cultural lives. We define ourselves according to the jobs that we do. Though the recently-released Taylor review of Britain’s gig economy focuses on wages, benefits, and regulation, it also clearly recognises work as an experience. The report is peppered with words like “happiness” and “aspiration”.

Over on the FT.com (read the article here), Sarah O’Connor asks:

Are we looping back on ourselves?

She takes a less possitive slant on the gig economy and worries that those who are gigging, not through choice but necessity, may fall back into a more dated world.

According to estimates of the size of the gig economy by the McKinsey Global Institute, 70 to 80 per cent of people in the US and Europe have nothing to do with it. What is more, 70 per cent of the people working independently are doing it because they like it. Still, that leaves 30 per cent who are “gigging” as a last resort. It is this group that policymakers, including UK prime minister Theresa May, are most worried about. She has ordered a review into workers’ rights to make sure those in the gig economy benefit from “flexibility and innovation” and do not fall through the cracks into an 18th-century world.

Whichever way you look at it, the gig economy is not quite as modern as we might have first thought. But enough about the past. What about the future? People who find themselves in the gig economy, through choice or otherwise, must have the protection and security they deserve.

Leave a Reply