The tech scene endlessly proclaims it will change the world in ways which quickly become exhausting, but Sarah Kessler has a good claim to have been there at the beginning of a truly revolutionary moment: the start of the thing we now call the gig economy.
The Fast Company and Quartz writer tries to inject more humanity into the tale of the proliferation of “Uber for X” jobs created the last decade, with a sceptical eye cast over the claims of self-proclaimed benevolence of this new brand of work.
Gigged does a valuable service in tracking the twists and turns of the workers of the gig economy. Indeed, perhaps its most powerful point is the sheer insecurity of low-skilled workers: it quickly becomes clear that the dramatic lives pursued by the various gig economy denizens she tracks are not outliers, but the new normal.
Uber is the classic case in point because of its size and visibility. At the whim of unnamed executives the earnings (never salaries) of drivers can be slashed almost overnight. There may always be work in the morning, but there is no certainty.
Some of the case studies leave the abiding impression that the gig economy is little more than a “tax classification”, a way of getting out of paying for the insurance against misfortune which is the welfare system. Fine for the skilled computer programmer in high demand; not great news for those much further down the ladder. Kessler does reference the benefits of the gig economy as well: flexibility, more work, and sometimes even higher earnings are all possible – although again mainly to those with more monetisable skills.
However, Gigged falls short in its examination of the future of the gig economy, with little discussion of scenarios which do not end in dystopia, other than a brief but interesting reference to cooperative platforms. Meanwhile, the perhaps even larger threat of automation is ever-present, but the consequences are rarely worked through.
All of this will probably be the first swell before a storm: the gig economy is just a step in the road to almost full automation. Uber drivers will be out of a job within the decade, and perhaps sooner, as driverless cars take over. The threat of mass unemployment, at least in the medium term, looms large over economies with large proportions of the workforce in routine, highly automatable jobs.
Perhaps the key insight in the book, hardly new but well illustrated, is just how far "automatable" extends: how the gig economy will likely one day be called, merely, the economy as more skilled professions are caught in the wave.
- Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work | Sarah Kessler | Random House Business | £14.99