The gig economy is growing. Researchers at the Brookings Institution say that the number of independent contractors who work on a gig basis has increased by 27 percent more than regular, full-time employees over the past 20 years. But is working this way good for workers — or just a way for employers to get out of paying for sick time and benefits?
The Potential for Exploitation
These independent contractors fill roles that are often short-term, offsite, and during hours they set themselves. There are plenty of potential problems with working this way, especially if it’s out of economic necessity and not free choice. Working as a freelancer comes without the safety net of unemployment, benefits, or long-term commitment from employers.
“In the U.S., for good or bad, many benefits and social assistance programs are largely, though not exclusively, handled by employers,” writes Jeffrey Pfeffer at Fortune. “The U.S. is unique among advanced industrialized countries in not offering universal health care coverage. Instead, coverage decisions are at employers’ discretion. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, even though employer-provided health insurance coverage has declined, about 58% of the nonelderly population still received employer-sponsored health insurance coverage in 2013.”
Further, since the rise of the gig economy happened simultaneously with the recession and the recovery, it’s difficult to say for sure how many contractors are working this way voluntarily.
The Upsides to Working as a Contractor
All that said, there are potential benefits to working by the gig instead of on a 9-to-5 schedule:
- Freedom. The most obvious upside to gigging is freedom. Contractors can set their own hours, work from home (or wherever), choose their temporary employer, and even change projects at will. In a corporate world that still dictates dress codes and cubicle cleanliness, being your own boss — sort of — can be pretty appealing.
- Loyalty — to yourself, not to an employer. Ask anyone who’s been through a layoff during the past couple of years: there’s no such thing as job security. It’s understandable if you find it hard to take an employer seriously when they talk about wanting loyalty from their workers. Contractors know what all workers suspect: the only loyalty they can really afford is to themselves and their careers.
- No more resume holes. Working as a contractor is also a good way to keep gaining work experience after a layoff, or between jobs. If you’re able to be strategic about which jobs you take, you might even be able to develop skills that will make you a more attractive candidate when you return to full-time work.
The Gig Economy Is Here to Stay
Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of embracing the gig economy is that we’re probably stuck with it.
“With full time jobs disappearing and full time employees becoming the worker of last resort, more than one third of Americans are now mixing together short-?term jobs, contract work, consulting gigs and freelance assignments and that number continues to grow. There is no doubt that the Gig Economy is the working world of the future,” says Diane Mulcahy, author of The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want.
According to the Freelancers’ Union, nearly one in three American workers are currently contractors, and many sources predict that could go as high as 50 percent by 2020. So maybe the conversation shouldn’t be whether the gig economy is good for workers, but how we can make it better — by extending some protections of traditional employer/employee relationships, and adapting others to fit new ways of working.
Tell Us What You Think
Are you a contractor — and do you love it or hate it? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.