Career Advice

Inside the Gig Economy: The Secret Struggle

Worried businessman using laptop while sitting by window in office

Professor Alexandrea Ravenelle has taken a deep dive into the gig economy with her new book, Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy. Currently, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Ravenelle acknowledges the benefits of working gigs, but she warns that there are hidden potholes in what is touted as entrepreneurship for the little guy.

Ravenelle’s research doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of interim work, but is concentrated on those jobs found through platforms such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and TaskRabbit. She has divided the population working these gigs into three groups: strugglers, strivers and success stories. 

Strugglers are down on their luck. They might be undocumented or at least underemployed. Something has happened that they are unable to get mainstream work. These are the only jobs they can find. Ravenelle says domestic workers who clean homes and businesses, as typical of this group. Their wages are substandard and their chances of moving up are pretty much nil.

Strivers are often supplementing their primary income. According to her research, some individuals have stagnant salaries and need to make more to keep up with the cost of living and others are planning a vacation, have unexpected medical bills or college tuition coming up. Parents raising children and students are well suited to working when it’s convenient and may not need a whole salary. They plan to gig temporarily. 

Success stories are those people who have resources to begin with. It might be a good idea for a semi-retired professional, like an attorney, who is working to keep their hand in. They are most often successful enough at a “regular” job to create their own business and work when they want to. As Ravenelle says, they can work from “beaches or bars.” Airbnb attracts this group, as they are apt to have a nice home or apartment and the finances to keep them up.

Ravenelle estimates that the strivers make up 50% to 60% of gig workers, while strugglers and successes are each about 25%.

Ravenelle found that the wonderful idea of flexibility – working when you want – is “a bit of a mirage. You assume the work will be there when you want it.” Not always so, she warns. A worker may be planning to be available on a Tuesday afternoon for TaskRabbit, but there aren’t any tasks available then, or within a reasonable proximity. The gigger is flexible but sometimes the market isn’t.

9780520300569It’s not that Ravenelle is disdainful of working gigs. She was an adjunct professor for years, with short term – a semester or year – teaching contracts. But even at her elite level, she ran into one of the common issues of gigging. What if your skills aren’t enough anymore? Or, become obsolete? In Ravenelle’s case, she got a Ph.D. She had a number of reasons, but the competition for jobs pushed her to up her game. 

The tasks may not be available at a convenient time, but they can also disappear. TaskRabbit pivoted away from creative work to more menial tasks. One of the platforms the professor was studying, for placement of private chefs, went out business leaving the culinary giggers scrambling to find another way to market themselves.

A lot of gig work drawbacks boil down to lack of control. You don’t control the job availability and you can’t control more dangerous issues. How do you protect yourself when driving? The platforms say they are there to help, but some workers report a lack of action. What about sexual harassment, even assault, in an office? Is HR really going to listen? Remember the temp worker is disposable in many employers’ minds and may not be listened to when complaining.

Employees on the payroll are just better protected. The systems are in place.

“Employees on the payroll are just better protected,” says Ravenelle. “The systems are in place. If you’re injured on the job, you have workman’s comp and other benefits.” She also found in her study that there are socio-economic risks. Some part-timers are treated inhumanely. Denied bathrooms or breaks. 

And they can be subject to strange, intolerable behavior by customers. One TaskRabbit picked up a pair of trousers to be taken to the tailor. When the client handed the money and pants to her, the gig worker put the money in her pocket. The customer slapped her hands and told her “don’t do that.” Humiliating. But what recourse do you have? 

Another individual took a gig cleaning out a pond. When he got there, the customer did not have tools or proper protective clothes. The worker had driven a long way and didn’t want to lose the job and money, even though he was officially allowed to turn down anything that made him uncomfortable. He did the task, soaking his clothes and using his hands to dig out the muck. He, like nearly everyone, was afraid of getting a nasty review. 

It can be tough to get out of gig work, even if you want to. Many of the interview subjects of Ravenele’s research are still doing gig work years after they started, though they had planned for it to be temporary. Some are stuck, unable to find anything else. And others get “addicted” to the variety and flexibility. 

“Explaining to an employer where you’ve been – that you’ve been gig working – can be tough,” says the sociologist. “If you’re taking care of children or going to school that’s understandable.”  Some hiring managers, however, look askance at any type of temporary employment.

The money oftentimes turns out to be less attractive than originally thought. Ravenelle points out that Uber drivers in New York City have the same costs as taxi drivers. That means thousands of dollars for licensing. Airbnb rules differ across the country, but you can be subject to considerable fines if you’re caught not complying.

Gig work can be a financial opportunity worth the hassles for some and in some cases. However, know the risks as well as advantages and make a calculated decision before jumping into the gig world. 


Missed Parts 1 and 2? Catch up!

Part 1: Inside the Gig Economy: What’s Old Is New Again

Part 2: Inside the Gig Economy: ‘Be Tenacious Without Being a Pest’

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