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Gigs Are the Future of Work: A Q&A with Sarah Kessler

A journalist explores how the gig economy is changing our culture and the definition of a job.

A woman in a green shirt is posing for a photo.
​Sarah Kessler. Photo by Celine Grouard

​Today, 57 million Americans are freelancing, which is roughly one-third of the U.S. workforce. By 2027, a majority of people working in this country will be doing freelance work, according to the 2017 Freelancing in America study. Many will make a living in the “gig economy,” where people are hired by the project. Journalist Sarah Kessler takes a closer look at some of the people behind the statistics in her new book, Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work (St. Martin’s Press, June 2018). Kessler, an editor at business news outlet Quartz and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine, talks about how the concept of work is changing.

How do you see the gig economy impacting our culture?

Uber’s business model has created the expectation that everything should come to you cheaply and on demand. For the first time, people who are not incredibly rich can have their every need fulfilled at the push of a button: meals and groceries delivered, laundry done, etc.

Which workers will benefit—and lose—the most?

Your experience in the gig economy will depend on what you do and how well you can withstand income fluctuations. If you’re highly skilled, in a niche, then it will be great for you. If you don’t have in-demand abilities or aren’t well-compensated, there’s a lot of risk involved in not knowing what you’re going to earn from week to week. And if you’re being treated like a full-time employee but aren’t, you’ll never get the security of employment or the benefits of true entrepreneurship. For some people, this way of working is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. For others, it destroys their security.

You highlight both outcomes in the book. Who is thriving?

Curtis, a newly graduated programmer living in New York City, was working full time for a company, but it took him only about three hours a day to finish his work. He was bored out of his mind and wasting his time. He quit to take on freelance assignments. When he started that, he got to choose the jobs he wanted and made $12,000 a month. He had enough money to buy his own health insurance, in case he gets hurt. If he had to serve jury duty, he could still buy groceries. 

Who has struggled?

There’s Gary in rural Arkansas. He was laid off from a local dog food plant and got a job at a call center where he was paid by the hour as an independent contractor. The company didn’t have enough work for him, and he didn’t know how many hours he’d put in each week. During his monthlong training, he wasn’t paid at all and his bills piled up. Eventually he quit.

Are companies taking unfair advantage of these workers?

There’s nothing wrong with hiring freelancers when you need certain skills for a short time and you pay them fairly. HR professionals need to be sensitive to that and to the risk of misclassifying their independent contractors as regular employees.

Is the gig economy the future of work?

It’s certainly the trend. Employees can cost up to 30 percent more to hire than contractors.

What would make gig work more secure?

Today, when you might be working for 12 employers, there’s no way you can have a traditional retirement plan. Current rules also limit training and benefits. We’ll need to restructure the laws to fit tomorrow’s workers. 

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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