Ann M. Morrison: Is gig the next big thing?

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MIAMI — My brother-in-law is an Uber driver in Springfield, Illinois. My nephew uses specialized software to do part-time legal work in Washington, D.C. My neighbors in the Berkshires rent out spare rooms through Airbnb. I submit freelance articles over the Internet to editors I have never met.

One way or another, we are almost all participating in the gig economy, or trying to. We're trading the benefits of independent work — setting our hours, choosing our assignments — against downsides like the lack of access to retirement benefits or coffee-machine gossip. We take on our side-hustles to supplement incomes, stay busy in retirement or, in the case of some Uber and Lyft drivers I've met, get out of the house.

But about one-third of this independent workforce depends on the gig economy because other wage-earning options are not available — or not enough. This was particularly true in the wake of the Great Recession, when a temporary spike in the independent workforce evidently made the gig economy look bigger than it really was.

The size of that economy is difficult to pin down, partly because the Labor Department doesn't measure it. The consulting firm McKinsey figured in 2016 that 20 percent to 30 percent of the working age population has spent time in independent jobs. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that 94 percent of net new employment in the decade before 2015 came from alternative work arrangements — everything from gig to freelance to contract work.

The trend is not likely to go away. Many workers want to be in control of their time and do work that suits their interests. Companies like the situation, too, figuring that off-site, independent-minded contributors are not only cheaper than permanent employees, but also can add different perspectives to corporate group think.

ROBOTS ARE HERE

At the same time, the world of work is undergoing an even more radical shift, thanks to automation and artificial intelligence. Fears about robots taking jobs, while hardly new, appear to be coming true: computerized machines (along with foreign competition and changing markets) have been responsible for the loss of about 7.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1980. The consultancy Bain & Co. forecasts that 20 percent to 25 percent of all existing jobs will be gone by 2030.

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Even jobs that survive will be transformed. Manufacturers will likely hire fewer blue collar workers — already an endangered species — and more engineering and technology specialists, who can program, maintain and upgrade those increasingly clever machines.

The future of work in the U.S. is not, however, about manufacturing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that most job growth over the next five years will come from the service sector, where the gig economy was born. Even these jobs are vulnerable to automation. There won't be as many Uber jockeys when self-drive cars dominate the roadways; algorithms already write post-game stories for sports websites and earnings reports for Bloomberg; automated trading moves markets.

So where will the jobs be? In front of your nose. Creative types will continue to dance, sing, write novels, perform in plays and create great art. The aging population will need all kinds of human help, from doctors to home health aides — though elderly Japanese seem to be happy with their caregiving robots.

Scientists, engineers and mathematicians will be in even more demand, especially those who can navigate the interface between man and machine. Managers, civil servants and, yes, politicians, will still have jobs. Lawyers, accountants and real estate agents who deal personally with clients will have work, taking advantage of artificial intelligence to expand their reach and offer more sophisticated information to clients.

Perhaps the most exciting opportunities lie in fields not yet created. Uber, after all, is only 10 years old. Innovation needs people who are open to new ideas and are passionate about executing them.

The most important job of the future could well be an old one: educator. In fact, that BLS survey cited above predicts that educational services will be the second largest job-generator, after health care, in coming years. It's the teachers, trainers and mentors who can prepare Americans of all ages for flexible, productive, fulfilling lives on the job — and even lives without one.

Ann M. Morrison, a former editor at Fortune, Asiaweek and Time magazines, has taught journalism at universities in Beijing and Paris.


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