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Gig Economy or Odd Jobs: What May Seem Trendy to Privileged City Dwellers and Suburbanites is as Old as Poverty

There is something infuriating about the name “gig economy,” especially when I hear privileged parents chatting about their fascination with the subject.  This fascination is usually coming from parents who have partners with steady incomes and can afford to partake in “gig” work if they so choose.  They are also not reading the most critical analyses of this kind of work or the economy in general.

Most recently, I’ve heard several discussions about a piece in The New Yorker[1], which describes many different types of gig work, including hanging pictures, cleaning, and pet care.  When readers discuss this article, they are absolutely inspired by what they think is a new idea.  Well, there’s nothing new about this kind of work.  We are basically talking about ODD JOBS; the kind of work low-income people have been doing for a very long time.  It’s just that “odd jobs” doesn’t sound very appealing or trendy.  The phrase “gig economy” is more palatable to a privileged audience and to those who do not want to be associated with what would otherwise be seen as unskilled labor.

Anyone who is fascinated by this seemingly new trend of taking on odd jobs here and there to make a living should ask themselves if they find it fascinating when poor people do it.  Does it seem ingenious, for example, when day laborers come to your house after a snow storm and ask if they can shovel your sidewalk?  What about the women Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein[2] interviewed as part of their research on welfare?  These women cleaned houses, mowed lawns, collected cans, and some sold sex and drugs to make ends meet.  Are these gigs equally fascinating?

The “gig economy” has received some fair criticisms.  Economist Richard Wolff[3] stated that this idea is really about employers controlling workers—having them come in only when needed and paying them only when needed.  He cautions us against the term “flexible labor” and is skeptical of stories that claim the gig economy allows parents to spend more time with their children.  He states, “Conveniencing young mothers has never been a high priority for employers anywhere, ever.”

The New Yorker piece also warns about a rising precariat, but that analysis is lost on the privileged reader.  What comes across more strongly is a romanticized description of gig work, where millennials share their life stories with you as they hang your pictures and clean your houses.  There’s the story of a young woman who left a career in marketing and now has an Airbnb in trendy Williamsburg, New York.  Her duplex is described as having an ingenious arrangement of couches and beds to accommodate twelve people.  Sounds a lot like couch surfing, another strategy the poor have used that is not new.  Barbara Ehrenreich[4] shared these and other strategies in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America.  That was in 2001.

The challenges of gig work are not uncommon.  They present the same problems many people of color and the working class have faced historically as they struggled with discrimination, unemployment, underemployment, and contingent labor.  These problems may have become more common among the falling middle class (or people who prefer to call themselves that when they are really working class), but they are not new.

There is something even more troubling to me about this interest in gigs by people who do not have to rely on them.  I’m reminded of the time when my father came to visit me in Connecticut.  I was attending graduate school, and I wanted to show my family the campus.  My father had a great time, because he was able to find loads of discarded soda cans and there was a machine right on campus that gave you money back for recycling them!  To my father who lived in an isolated rural town, where you couldn’t recycle anything easily let alone receive cash for it, this was a dream.  I think some of the people I now live and work around would be embarrassed by that and they certainly would not see my father as an innovator.  Despite all the stereotypes about poor people and the working class, my father was never too proud to make a living from whatever “gig” he could find as well as working multiple blue collar jobs.  The privileged among us tend to discount this resourcefulness and intelligence among poor people.

As Chilean Economist Manfred Max Neef[5] once stated, “In poverty there is an enormous creativity.  You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive. Every minute, you have to be thinking, what next? What do I know? What trick can I do here?”  When the middle class engages in the same behavior as the poor it’s considered ingenious, fascinating, and innovative.  When the poor do this kind of work, they are not seen as brilliant or creative. They are just poor people doing dirty work.  That’s what’s really insulting about the name “gig economy.”

Missing from idle chatter about the “gig economy” is lasting discussion of true workplace democracies that would benefit everyone.  Economist Cathy Mulder[6] has written one of the first books that documents the challenges and triumphs of these cooperatives in the United States and London.  It’s hard for them to survive in a capitalistic society, where profit is the ultimate goal, but many do.  What would happen if we put our energies towards building these workplace democracies that pay living wages rather than hustling for gigs in an unfair market system?  We should be having these conversations and taking action.  So, the next time your neighbor shares the newest article s/he has read on the flexibility and ingenuity of the “gig economy,” ask them why they are so impressed by it and suggest they read up on worker owned firms.  Maybe the two of you could start one together.

Notes.

[1] Heller, Nathan.  2017.  “Is the Gig Economy Working?”  The New Yorker, May 15.  Retrieved May 18, 2017 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/15/is-the-gig-economy-working).

[2] Edin, Kathryn, and Laura Lein (1997).  Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.  NY: Russell Sage.

[3] Wolff, Richard.  2015.  “Economic Update: Capitalism and/or Socialism.”  Truthout, December 28.  Retrieved May 18, 2017 (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34195-economic-update-capitalism-and-or-socialism).

[4] Ehrenreich, Barbara  (2001).  Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America.  NY: Henry Holt and Company.

[5] “Chilean Economist Manfred Max-Neef: US Is Becoming an ‘Underdeveloping Nation.’”  Democracy Now.  Retrieved May 18, 2017 (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/9/22/chilean_economist_manfred_max_neef_us).

[6] Mulder, Cathy (2015).  Transcending Capitalism Through Cooperative Practices.  NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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