Working in a gig economy: precarity and possibility
'The career is dead--long live the career!'
- Douglas Hall
Whoever is in charge in the White House, the digital revolution will continue to gain more and more momentum. Digitalization - above all else - is shaping the world of work.
It is clear that whilst the digital economy creates amazing opportunities, some careers are becoming commoditized by a platform-driven, gig economy. In this post I share a few reflections specifically on the growing impact of freelance and gig-work on careers.
A person’s ascent from shop floor to global chief executive reflects a familiar ‘anything is possible’ corporate career success story. Anders Moberg, who was President and CEO of IKEA from 1986 to 1999, is one such example. Starting at IKEA at 19 in the mail-order room, he became the CEO. Alongside the founder, Moberg shaped IKEA’s rise and its values. He played a central role in IKEA's internationalization and market leadership in furniture retail.
How likely are stories like this in a digital era, characterized by outsourcing, gig working, and accelerating automation? How likely is a driver for a food delivery service, or a mail-order courier, to be identified as ‘high potential’ talent, then nurtured to become a senior leader in the organizations that do not employ any frontline staff directly?
A junior digital marketing executive, or data analyst, or finance professional, working for a food delivery platform in a hybridized office of the future, has a fighting chance of receiving pay increases, and upskilling through curated virtual learning experiences. Many knowledge workers can still hope for on-the-job coaching, job enrichment and career progress, even in a remote or hybrid working future. Then again, even that is uncertain, given how psychologically transactional virtual working can be even for full-time employees. The person at the front-line, recently re-labelled a so-called ‘key worker’ in the UK, who happens also to be notionally self-employed, is unlikely to benefit from any serious upskilling, or career development.
Although the trend towards non-organisational careers may have been overstated in the past, a reasonable prediction is that the current crisis will only accelerate this trend. Evidence presented by some academic detractors of ‘boundaryless’ careers in gig economies suggests that unpredictable gig work can tend to favour organizations rather than meet the needs of working people. This is particularly the case for already marginalized workers in relatively lower-paid workforce segments.
The prerequisites for success in a digital economy and the forms of careers are incredibly different to those Moberg encountered as a young man in Sweden in the 1970's, when he joined IKEA as a school leaver. His talent was spotted. He was nurtured by his boss.
A bleak scenario would be that such serendipitous opportunities to excel and be recognized are going to be even more limited for millions of the least privileged young workers entering today’s incredibly fragile, digital gig economy than they were in the 1970's. Gig working has the potential to be a lonely and anonymous career dead-end for many, even if it represents a route to freedom and prosperity for others. Career mobility may be very unequally distributed - perhaps even more so than it has been historically.
There are, of-course, many upsides to independent entrepreneurship and freelance working. I should know.
On the positive side, the trend towards greater freelance working has created more pluralism in our notions of ‘success’, as prophesied by the eminent career academic Douglas Hall. He pointed out that there are ‘infinite ways to achieve psychological success, as many ways as there are unique human needs.’
Taking an inter-generational perspective, the data does suggest some important psychological differences, and trends. Lauren Lee Anderson cites several sources to argue that ‘millennial’ workers tend to value autonomy, independence at work and the freedom to pursue their passions. The generational shift is towards identification with an external cause, and this is also underpinned by a need for work-life harmony, or integration, which implies work and life roles are interconnected and co-dependent, not separate or in competition.
With diminished opportunities for financial and career stability, security, or predictability, enhancing one’s profile, maintaining work-life harmony, and building a portfolio of valuable experiences become paramount. The transition for individuals and organizations into a new economy, in which all sorts of careers, in several sectors are increasingly individualized, self-managed and fluid, is turning out to be complex and challenging.
Psychologists, coaches, and HR practitioners have an important role to play in helping people achieve successful transitions into gig work and the digital economy. What will be interesting both to experience and observe, is the extent to which we, as enablers of others, are ourselves motivated, and equipped to embrace the mixed realities of a digital economy.
How will our work evolve? How will we survive and thrive in this rapidly changing context?
Time will tell.
What is your perspective on gig work and the digital economy, and their implications for careers?
See also -
Aloisi, A. (2016). Commoditized workers: Case study research on labour law issues arising from a set of ‘on-demand/gig economy’ platforms. 37 Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2015–2016, p. 653.
Anderson, L.L. (2012). Forget Balance! Generation Y Wants Work-Life Integration. 15five. Blogpost. Available at https://www.15five.com/blog/forget-balance-gen-y-wants-work-life-integration/.
Cennamo, L. & Gardner, D. (2008). Generational differences in work values, outcomes and person-organisation fit. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23, pp. 891–906.
Friedman, G. (2014). Workers without employers: Shadow corporations and the rise of the gig economy. Review of Keynesian Economics, April 2014, pp. 171–178. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4337/roke.2014.02.03
Hall, D.T. (1996). Careers in the 21st century. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 10(4).
Inkson, K., Gunz, H., Ganesh, S., & Roper, J. (2012). Boundaryless careers: Bringing back boundaries. Organization Studies, 33(3), pp. 323–340.
Ong, H.L.C. & Jeyarag, S. (2014). Work-life interventions: Differences between work-life balance and work-life harmony and its impact on creativity at work. Sage Open, 4(3). Online article. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014544289.
Reference for Business (n.d.). Moberg joined IKEA aged 19 and became Chief Executive at 35. http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/biography/M-R/Moberg-Anders-C-1950.html.
Smith, V. (2010). Enhancing employability: Human, cultural, and social capital in an era of turbulent unpredictability. Human Relations, 63(2), pp. 279–303.
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Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose