When I learned the YES! Magazine editors were planning an issue on the “Gig Economy,” I was skeptical. I saw the trend toward contract work, piece work, and a lack of long-term employer-employee commitment as a sign of system breakdown and abuse of corporate power. The editors saw positive aspects I had missed. However, we need serious public conversation and policy action to make sure the positive aspects win out over the evident power imbalances and potential for exploitation.
Our editors estimate that 40 percent of American workers are now in the gig economy. Gig workers accounted for nearly all U.S. job growth since 2007—and for the job recovery from the 2008 financial crash. The flexible hours and short commitments of gig work can be liberating. But too often, gig workers are poorly paid and get no benefits.
The trend toward gig work raises fundamental questions: Does it combine with a breakdown in traditional family relationships to signal a permanent move away from committed relationships in both the home and workplace? Or might it be a transitional step toward deeper, more equitable relationships in family, community, and workplace life?
In the early United States, family and community were the primary units of production and consumption. With the help of neighbors, we produced food, clothing, and shelter from our own local materials, raised our children, and cared for our elderly. Money had only a supplemental role—if any.
Then came the industrial revolution. Those who left the land for the factory became dependent on money for the essentials of life. Established family and community relationships were disrupted. Corporations became the primary units of production.
This created new opportunities for some. Most, however, were forced to labor long hours in sweatshops for starvation wages. A long and often brutal struggle for worker rights followed.
Is the gig economy a step on the way to ever-more-poorly compensated and vulnerable employment?
After WWII, supported by strong unions and worker-friendly government policies, members of the White middle class in America enjoyed a period of good jobs with sufficient income and benefits for the husband to provide money to support himself, his wife, and their children. Women organized home and community life and raised the children.
Then women began to demand access to the jobs that gave men greater status, choice, and opportunity. At the same time, corporations were using automation and foreign outsourcing to eliminate the jobs to which women sought equal access.
As a growing pool of workers competed for a shrinking number of good jobs, unions lost political power as union-busting corporations gained it. Wages fell. Benefits were weakened for full-time employees and eliminated for others.
Soon it took two overstressed adults to earn sufficient income to meet the basic needs of a family with children. The stress led to family breakups, single parents raising latchkey children, and an aging population lacking family support.
We now see the rise of the gig economy. Some workers prefer gig work to a steady 9–5 job because it gives them the flexibility to spend time at home with their children, care for aging relatives, grow their own vegetables, pursue an artistic passion, go back to school. For some it is win-win—if their pay is adequate to their needs. For others it is isolating, demeaning, and exploitative.
Is the gig economy a step on the way to ever-more-poorly compensated and vulnerable employment? Or is it a viable, desirable path for many to take toward more caring, committed, and enduring relationships? What can we do to make it more the latter? These are pressing questions largely absent from our political and social dialogue.
I would love to hear your experience: Has gig work helped you build community or left you isolated and vulnerable? Do you have ideas about how to make this powerful trend part of the transition to a living Earth economy that works for all? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or on the YES! Magazine Facebook page.
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.