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In Defense of the Gig Economy…

Jay Richards: It’s misunderstood! Weekly salary is only one measure of value today

A big disruption is coming to the workplace, due to smart machines. But that doesn’t mean new grads live in their mom’s basement and fix coffee for a living. It means understanding, adapting, and reading past the scare headlines:

Machines are expected to displace about 20 million manufacturing jobs across the world over the next decade, according to a report released Wednesday by Oxford Economics, a global forecasting and quantitative analysis firm.

That means about 8.5% of the global manufacturing workforce could be displaced by robots. The report also notes that the move to robots tends to generate new jobs as fast as it automates them, however it could contribute to income inequality.

Anneken Tappe, “Robots could take 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030” at CNN Business

Of course, a decline in Big Manufacturing jobs spells changes for the many service industries that support it, including those that employ STEM and business grads. Is everyone condemned to a gig economy then and is it a bad thing?

Richards, a business prof and the author of The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, advises, look a little more closely.

The gig economy is growing. In the United States, for example, it grew from about 10% of workers in 2005 to about 16% in 2015. But these numbers may be conservative. Current technology is friendly to the gig economy:

Cloud computing, advanced networks, and other technologies have combined to make working remotely a possibility for people across the globe. A few years ago, this wasn’t possible. Even in highly developed, urban areas, there simply wasn’t the telecommunications infrastructure for people to work efficiently any significant distance from their offices. In addition to this, much of the hardware and software required was priced out of the range that many people could afford.

Today, someone can order business quality phone and internet for not much more than they would residential quality. Finding wifi connectivity is rarely a problem, even in some of the most remote areas of the world.

Abdullahi Muhammed, “4 Reasons Why The Gig Economy Will Only Keep Growing In Numbers” at Forbes

A story from Britain betrays a common misunderstanding of the changes:

One in 10 working-age adults in the UK work on gig economy platforms, double the number who did so in 2016, according to a study by the University of Hertfordshire and the TUC.

The research suggests that 4.7 million people now work in the gig economy and warns that workers’ rights have not kept pace…

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC [Trades Union Congress], said working people did not have the protection they needed, adding: “Huge numbers are being forced to take on casual and insecure platform work – often on top of other jobs. But as we’ve seen with Uber too often these workers are denied their rights and are treated like disposable labour.”

Rob Moss, “Gig economy doubles in three years” at Personnel Today

But do workers’ rights mean the same thing in a rapidly shifting new economy as they did in a postwar economy where many workers retired after 40 years of fulltime employment in the same firm, sometimes at the same position?

Richards doesn’t think so. He told Mind Matters News,

I think the “gig economy” is so often misinterpreted and disparaged is because people don’t really understand it. They compare the structured, limited, full time salaries of 20th century industrial age jobs, with “gigs” such driving for Uber, or doing graphic design on a global platform.

They expect gigs to replace the older type of full time jobs, and fault them for failing to do so. But this treats one historically contingent way of working—as most people did in the developed world over the last century—as the platonic ideal for employment.

In reality, many people working in the gig economy do it because of the flexibility and low barriers to entry. Many Uber drivers, for instance, treat it as a “side gig” or temporary work will attending college. Some people do it because they’ve lost one job and are in transition. Others do it after they’ve retired.

In any job, weekly salary is only one of the measures of value. Flexibility and low barriers to entry are also values.

His take-home point is that in today’s rapidly changing economy, low entry barriers and flexibility are increasingly seen as positive values. If a would-be worker in a given trade must spend two years getting a certificate, that means two years of expense and lost wages. Subsidies might help but time and energy must be spent acquiring them. And the field may change radically in five years, which reduces the intrinsic value of the earlier training.

Similarly, if a local employment contract prevents a worker from accepting a better offer from abroad, that contract costs the worker money that no one will compensate. Thus, Richards warns, “Experts” should not be confident that they understand the value propositions of gig jobs better than the individuals doing the gigs.”


Play your cards right in the gig economy:

Three ways you can avoid life in Mom’s basement and the job pouring coffee At first sight, the number of options might seem bewildering. The key question is: Will you ignore the coming job disruption, fear it, or treat it as an opportunity? (Jay Richards)

Creative freedom, not robots, is the future of work. In an information economy, there will be a place where the human person is at the very center.

and

Philosopher: Gloom and doom over AI is silly. Jay Richards thinks that historian Yuval Noah Harari is wrong to think that AI will necessarily subvert democracy


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In Defense of the Gig Economy…