The Gig Economy – Why It Might Be the Key to Your Future

Millions of people have gravitated toward the gig economy in the past few years. It’s likely that most got there accidentally. Even if you aren’t in the gig economy now, be open to the possibility. It just might be the key to your future. I know it has been for me, and it’s turned out a lot better than I ever imagined. Part of the “secret” is to embrace it as a positive development, and to tap it for all it’s worth.

What is the Gig Economy?

I think most of us have an idea what a “gig” is. Historically, it’s the description of an income-producing venture in the arts, like singing, acting or stand-up comedy. But it’s expanded to the broader economy in recent years. In the most general sense, it might best be described as a money-making venture that falls short of being a full-time, permanent job with benefits.

Investopedia describes the gig economy this way:

“In a gig economy, temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees.”

That’s increasingly the state of the job market, and it takes in a lot of territory. It can include part-time jobs, contract assignments, freelance work, or various forms of self-employment. It can even escalate to where it becomes an ongoing long-term career in itself. It can reach a point where you become a mobile creative. In that way, the gig economy takes on the characteristics of a full-fledged career path.

How Big is the Gig Economy?

The Gig Economy - Why It Might Be the Key to Your Future
The Gig Economy – Why It Might Be the Key to Your Future
Nobody really knows for sure how big the gig economy is. This is due in part to the fact that it exists in nearly every sector and industry in the economy, and the fact that it’s often a highly informal arrangement. But it’s well known that it’s growing rapidly

Statistics indicate the 95% of the jobs created during the last eight years are temporary, contract or part-time. That makes the low 4.something percent unemployment rate highly suspect.

This article, New Work, New Culture, does a good job of describing the “why” behind the gig economy, and why it’s almost certainly a permanent fixture, rather than a temporary transition.

We can look at Uber as a prominent example of the gig economy. Thousands of people are working through Uber, either for an additional source of income, or as a career-in-between-careers. And along the way, Uber is gradually displacing established careers/industries, like taxi cabs and car rentals, ensuring that it will have a continued role in the future.

Different Gigs, Different Gig Workers

Gig workers increasingly work in all industries, but in different capacities. And as you might expect, they are more common in some industries than others. For example, in the IT industry, gig workers are common in the form of contract employees. IT workers are frequently employed only as long as a particular project lasts. After that, they’re let go, and need to find other employment. They frequently work through temporary employment agencies.

With the growth of the Internet, thousands of people function as gig workers. This is where I’m at. They may run their own websites or blogs, or perform various services for others websites. Those services can include search engine optimization, website marketing, social media marketing, content creation, editing and a bunch of other functions.

There’s also strong demand for virtual assistants (VAs) in a lot of small businesses. These are people who provide a wide variety of administrative tasks, often for multiple clients. It may involve working on a single project, or providing ongoing services. VAs typically work from home on their computers, which enables them to work for clients hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The gig economy also includes part-time jobs. These can include substitute teachers, professional per diem work, Uber drivers, coffee shop baristas, bartenders and servers, or even work in retail or the hospitality industry.

These are just some examples of work in the gig economy, but there are more than we have time or space to cover here.

Welcome the “Slash Worker”

No, that’s not a part in a grisly horror movie! It’s “slash” as in blogger/accountant, referring to the two occupations that I held simultaneously as I built up my blogging and freelance writing business. I’ve lost the slash since I no longer do accounting, but it served me well for six years.

It turns out that I was hardly alone in that classification. The gig economy has resulted in millions of people holding multiple gigs, often in unrelated fields. For example, a person could be a coffee barista/actress, a photographer/Uber driver, a real estate agent/virtual assistant, or a blogger/substitute teacher. The possibilities are endless.

While I found my slash worker experience to be generally positive, I think that it is temporary for most people. They may balance two or even three gigs as they work toward turning one of them into their main occupation.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of the Gig Economy

Despite the seeming instability of the gig economy, it does offer a number of compelling advantages:

  • It’s an opportunity to sell your hands-on skills and talents to the general market, rather than a single employer
  • It’s an opportunity to earn money when jobs in your field are scarce
  • Since the possibilities are endless, it represents a chance for you to monetize skills and abilities that you are not able to use on your job
  • It offers complete flexibility – you are free to accept or quit any assignments you choose, and in many cases, to work from home
  • It’s a completely portable income arrangement – it makes relocation much more doable
  • You’re never locked into one type of work, or a single employer
  • You can turn gig work into a full-time business (more on that in the next sections)

But at the same time, it’s also not without downsides:

  • Income isn’t always steady, especially at the beginning
  • Gigs can be on the low end of the payscale, especially before you establish yourself
  • There is a healthy amount of self-marketing required on an ongoing basis, and many people aren’t comfortable doing this
  • There are no benefits, though it is possible to get part-time jobs with health insurance, as well as to set up your own retirement plan
  • Time management can be a problem, especially if you’re juggling multiple jobs or client assignments
  • You will have to make estimated tax payments for non-job source income

None of these downsides can’t be overcome, but it can be a real adjustment to someone who has always held a job and didn’t have to be concerned with obtaining health insurance, setting up a retirement plan or handling their own income tax withholding.

Why the Gig Economy May Be the Key to Your Future – It Just Could Lead to Better Things

Though you may have a full-time job now, we can never know what the future holds. For many people, the loss of a full-time job means the end of a full-time career. There may not be any replacement jobs available. This is particularly true during a recession, which seems to be a common time during which the number of gig economy workers expands.

A lot of workers are also trapped in static jobs. They may be holding the same position and pay that they have for years, with no potential for advancement. Moving into the gig economy may be the only way for them to spread their wings and try their hand at new and promising ventures.

The gig economy also becomes more pronounced in what we might think of as the “book ends of life”. That includes both workers under 30, trying to establish themselves in a reliable career, and workers over 50, who have been displaced from steady jobs that can no longer be replaced.

Still a third category is retirees. Millions of people 65 and older lack the ability to retire on a full-time basis. The gig economy may be the best way to at least create a comfortable semi-retirement, a state of affairs that I believe is fast becoming the wave of the future for the majority of middle-class Americans.

No matter what your position in life is, you should be open to the possibility of entering the gig economy. You might even want to prepare for that shift while you are still employed on a full-time basis. A sudden change in your employer, industry, or the economy, could leave you out in the cold with little advanced notice.

I’m in the Gig Economy Myself – And It’s the Best Work I’ve Ever Done

At the tail end of 2008 – right at the height of the “Great Recession” – I left the mortgage business for the gig economy. Was it a radical and risky step? Yes and yes! But at the time, there were truly no other good options open to me. I had an idea where I wanted to go, but the specifics were very fuzzy.

Early in 2009, I took a part-time accounting gig, mostly preparing income tax returns, and launched Out of Your Rut. When tax season ended after April, I took temporary gigs in mortgages and banking.

Along the way I kept working at my blog, sensing that it was the key to my future – even though it didn’t make any money for the first nine months. But things got better as time went on. The banking and mortgage gigs came to an end, but the accounting gig was ongoing and eventually became year-round, at least on a part-time basis.

Meanwhile OOYR starting making money through advertising revenue, small at first, then growing to several hundred dollars per month. I also started getting writing gigs for other blogs. Two years into my gig existence I was a three-gig guy – blogger/accountant/freelance blog writer.

The freelance blog writer side soon become my primary source of income. Eventually it came to provide a full-time income and enabled me to give up the accounting gig. I now have at least a dozen regular writing clients. I work completely from home, have no geographic restrictions, and have incredible control over both my income and my life/work balance. I wouldn’t trade this for any full-time job, regardless of the pay level.

My experience is an excellent example of how gig work can be turned into a full-time career. And I’m hardly alone. Gig work is typical for dozens of people I’ve met on the internet. And my friend Dave worked for years as a restaurant server/professional speaker while he built up his speaking business.

The moral of the story is that the gig economy doesn’t have to be a temporary arrangement, nor is it a dead end in any way. It will become whatever you make it, and that will depend entirely on your motivation, skills and willingness to do whatever it takes to make it work. But you have to embrace it as an opportunity and not view it as a career quandary.

How to Find Gigs in the Gig Economy

Let’s say you decide to embrace the gig economy, and take the plunge yourself. Maybe you’ve been unemployed long enough that your unemployment benefits are running out. Maybe you still haven’t found your niche and you want to experience some different situations. Or maybe you’re about to lose your job and don’t know where to go. How can you go about getting gigs?

(Note: I don’t recommend quitting a full-time job to jump into the gig economy, but you may consider wading into it as a source of additional income. If it works on a part-time basis then you can decide if and when to make it a full-time career move.)

Start by inventorying all of your skills and talentseven those you’ve never used on a job. Search your passions and hobbies too. I never wrote professionally before getting into blogging and freelance blog writing, but discovered I had a talent for it – which is something I’d suspected for years.

But don’t forget your job skills either. People and businesses need all kinds of work done, and you may be surprised to find that some of the most ordinary skills you have can command higher pay in the business-to-business market.

Even if you “only” have administrative skills, you can still sell them on the open market as a virtual assistant, often for more money than you can on a full-time job.

Also, be fully prepared to mix a part-time job with client-type gigs for as long as it takes to establish a comfortable and reasonably reliable income level. Look around, and you’ll see a lot of people doing that, which can serve as both an inspiration and a source of paying gigs. In this way, other gig workers become part of your network, and a source of income streams.

Here’s how you can go about finding gigs on an ongoing basis

  • Put an ad on Craigslist, listing what services you’ll provide – it may not bring in a flood of business, but it could get you some initial clients, and provide a stream of opportunities in the future.
  • Start your own website or blog, and use it as a resume – Out Of Your Rut has been a superb online resume for my freelance writing activities.
  • Offer your services to previous employers on a consulting basis.
  • Approach small businesses; they’re often open to gigs since they can’t afford to pay salaries to regular employees.
  • Direct email small businesses and websites offering your services. This is a very intimate but informal way of soliciting for business, and also the most effective in my own experience.
  • Let all of your personal and social contacts know what you’re doing, and set up a mail or email schedule to remind them every two or three months.
  • Never, ever be afraid to take on something new and different. As a highly successful friend of mine always says, you can, if you think you can (there’s also the old standby saying, nothing ventured, nothing gained)

While the majority of people continue to cling to post-World War II notions about employment and careers, the world and the job market are changing all around us. Flexibility and creativity are fast becoming the keys to survival. Carving out a niche in the gig economy is rapidly becoming the career path for millions of people of all ages.

Are you working in the gig economy now, or have you given any thought to the possibility that you might in the future?

( Photo by Senator Mark Warner )

6 Responses to The Gig Economy – Why It Might Be the Key to Your Future

  1. Kevin, great insight on the Gig Economy, from one who lives it! I love the flexibility it provides, and will be using the “Gig Economy” (monetizing my blog) as one of the levers allowing me to Retire Early, next June 2018.

    It’s an amazing phenomenon, the world has changed radically. Great write up on what it’s all about.

  2. Thanks Fritz! It seems that most sources cast the gig economy in a negative way, as though it’s some sort of dead end for people who don’t know what they’re going to do. But if it’s viewed in that vein, it IS negative. But when you consider all the people who have turned the gig economy into a legitimate career path – which is actually very doable – it could provide career and income salvation. But you have to approach it in a positive way, always being aware of the vast potential it has. I’ve been in it for so long now that the thought of working any other way is off the table. This is really too good to leave – working at home, complete portability, creativity, control of my income – what’s not to love? But bigger picture, the economy and the job market are changing fundamentally. The gig economy is where it seems to be heading, and that can work for more people – if they embrace it.

  3. As I freelancer myself, I was honestly a little taken aback when the term “gig economy” started gaining a negative connotation in the last election cycle. While there are certainly some negative side effects, I think it’s been a big breakthrough for a lot of people and is definitely a positive development. Great overview, Kevin!

  4. Thanks Jonathan. Part of the reason why I decided to write on this topic is precisely because the whole gig phenomenon has been so maligned. It’s been a lifesaver for me, and I know others who it’s working for. It’s time to take a different perspective on it. There’s so much opportunity out there, and the gig economy is one of the very best ways to tap into it.

  5. Hi Kevin. Well, I may be showing my age, but I never heard that term before, although I somewhat practiced it for many years back in the 80’s and 90’s. While I did work full-time with full benefits, I also had a very lucrative side job that I did from home on the computer. This was pre-internet days, but I was making $800+ per month back in the late 80s on my side job. It was easy work, they liked my work and were grateful for what I did, and it gave me something to do besides watch TV. It allowed me to get out of debt, save to buy a home, etc. But, fast-foward to today, I do believe you are right on the money describing the job market out there and all the benefits of gig work, so to speak. It is the future, and I’m happy it worked out so well for you.

  6. It sounds like it worked for you too Bev! You were doing gig work before it was even labeled. And actually the way you did it is the best way, doing it as a side venture along with your full-time job. Now imagine it’s 2017, and you’ve lost your job but you still have your side gig. If you can get a couple of similar gigs, you will have replaced your full-time job. Of course, no benefits, which is one of the downsides to it. But if it’s all you had to go on, it would at least keep you going, and maybe even set the stage for better paying gigs in the future. I’ve found that gig work has an inertia all it’s own, and if you work at it steadily, it gets better and better.

    It always amazes me the people who sit at home and complain about how bad things are while they’re watching TV. My thinking is, turn off the TV, turn on your computer, and start looking for income opportunities. They really are out there, but it requires a different way of thinking, searching and applying your skills. We probably need to introduce gig work as a course of study in the school system. Could help millions of young people.

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