The Gig Economy, the End of the Job and the Future of Work
Sarah Kessler (2018)
Gigged charts the emergence of the gig economy through the stories of five people in the gig economy, combined with a healthy background of diligent research. In doing so, it settles on a perspective wherein the gig economy is not so much an economic revolution as a new battlefield on which historic tensions between worker and employer play out.
We hear the story of Mamdooh, an ambitious Uber driver who neatly encapsulates the adversarial parts of the relationship between the company and its drivers. Mamdooh experienced initial success with the platform, making good money and maintaining a high rating, but even here he ran into frustrations with Uber’s policies. Uber strictly prohibit drivers making private ride-sharing deals with customers they meet through Uber. Mamdooh would sidestep these prohibitions by arranging with preferred customers that they call him and wait until he arrived before arranging the trip on Uber, at which point the algorithm would almost certainly assign the job to Mamdooh as the closest free driver. After Uber’s price wars with other services such as Lyft drove the rates of pay down, Mamdooh organised a strike of Uber drivers - a difficult task because Uber don’t put drivers in contact with one another and they don’t share physical space in the same way factory workers do.
The biggest success story of the Gigged cohort is Curtis, a programmer. Curtis left a bullshit job because of frustrations over not having enough work to do, and started taking projects on the Gigster platform. Although the compensation was lower overall,1 and he only got paid for time he actually worked, the work was more varied and more fun. Curtis’ successful relationship with the platform is a poster child for the gig economy, but in many ways it works because Curtis is like the Silicone Valley entrepreneurs who build the platforms: he has highly marketable skills, is self-motivated, values flexibility, and is easily bored.
Kristy is a determined and creative woman who turned to MTurk2 to manage in an impoverished environment rather than aspiring to make a fortune or escape tedium. One year of work, for which she had to learn to deploy special productivity tools to make task completion quicker and alert her to well-paid new tasks, left her with repetitive strain injury.
Terrence is a teacher and community organiser in a small town in Arkansas, and through his story we learn about the subtleties of gig work: how it both offers opportunities for people struggling for work to leverage advantages they have (such as fluent, ‘unaccented’ English) and how it forces them into competition with other employees all around the world who can just as easily be at the end of a customer support call.
Finally, there’s Dan, who created an Uber for cleaning company which changed from offering gig-work to formal employment once it realised that customer and employee retention were both hugely challenging aspects of that sector.
Throughout the book the gig economy is explored in an even-handed and thorough way. Some themes emerge: information is hugely powerful, forming both the basis of most gig platform business models and hampering unionisation and collective bargaining for workers; and the challenges of managing employer-employee relationships are not necessarily new to the gig economy - misclassification of workers to avoid paying for illness, parental leave, holidays, etc. has a long and sour history.
The take-home money was similar, but the gig work doesn’t include the medical insurance, holiday pay, etc. of the corporate job. ↩
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform offers small micro-jobs to human workers for small payments. Typical jobs include classifying images or answering surveys, and rates of pay are notoriously poor. ↩