I’m Uber-Whelmed By The Gig Economy

By Erica Meltzer
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A recent study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, some 7.6 million American workers, 43 percent of the workforce, will be involved in some sort of on-demand or contingent job. The promises of the “gig economy” can be a blessing for women in business but there are plenty of pitfalls too, like the constant need for self-marketing. Bobbie Carlton, founder of Innovation Women, is giving females a platform for visibility to help them market themselves.

Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Innovation Women, a speakers bureau for female entrepreneurs and women in tech, found herself unemployed in 2008 when the start-up she was working for ran out of money.

“Nobody was hiring in marketing and PR at the time,” she said. “I was making a living any way I could. I was going back to old clients. I was finding jobs here and there.”

Carlton had inadvertently joined what has become known as the “gig economy,” a term that encompasses Uber drivers and Instacart shoppers, freelance web designers and coders and multifaceted creative types who parachute into engaging projects and then take off for the next adventure.

A recent study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, some 7.6 million American workers, 43 percent of the workforce, will be involved in some sort of on-demand or contingent job.

Carlton will discuss the promise and pitfalls of the gig economy at a Conference on World Affairs panel this morning with Ty Tashiro, an author who applies social science research to relationships and personal interactions and who has also been involved in artificial intelligence research, and with Max Nanis, a conceptual artist, programmer and computational biologist.

“I’m Uber-whelmed by the Gig Economy” could be taken multiple ways, Carlton said, referring to the panel’s title. The easiest reading is “overwhelmed,” but the ride-sharing service Uber also has been extremely successful.

What started as a scramble for work has led to new opportunities for Carlton. In 2008, she had only ever been someone’s employee. Now she runs three companies.

Changes like the Affordable Care Act, which makes it more feasible to buy insurance on the private market, have allowed more people to branch out and try new things. People don’t have to wait for someone in an organizational hierarchy to recognize their talent.

At the same time, the gig economy requires nearly constant self-marketing, Carlton said. With Innovation Women, Carlton gives women a platform for visibility in fields that are still largely male dominated.

And there is a downside to the vaunted flexibility of gig economy work.

“We have to be careful,” Carlton said. “Being a business owner gives you the ultimate flexibility. You can work any 100 hours a week you want.”

Tashiro, whose next book is about being socially awkward and why it’s actually “awesome,” was in an Uber car on the way to the airport when he found the time to talk to a Camera reporter about the panel. Despite the demand to sell yourself, he sees benefits to the gig economy for socially awkward people.

The apps that have developed to connect workers and employers or workers and consumers take a lot of the guesswork out of personal interactions.

“I think it can be a blessing in some ways for people who are awkward,” he said. “One of the things that is hard for awkward people is reading social cues, and certain apps or platforms limit the number of cues you need to understand. It’s more scripted.

“And for the consumer,” he added, “they can get really high quality work from someone they might have dismissed if they had to interact in person.”

The gig economy allows creative people to find their audience outside traditional channels and blossom in niche markets, but it also raises the specter of oversaturation, Tashiro said, with too many drivers or coders dividing not enough work.

Nanis confessed that he hates the term “gig economy” because it lumps together too many things that are not alike and creates confusion.

Are lawyers or actors part of the gig economy? They’ve been pulling together a living from multiple jobs and clients for decades. Uber drivers and on-demand dog walkers don’t work a set job with set hours, but they do the same tasks over and over.

Nanis’ professional life is also defined by what he prefers to call the “1099 economy,” referring to the tax form.

But what that looks like for him is working with 10x Management to find challenging programming jobs or interim CEO positions that let him solve interesting problems, while at the same working at the Scripps Research Institute to visualize genetic information in ways that advance medical research and creating sculpture that uses algorithms to “narrate messages of persistence, fragility and industry, often through the revelation of biological data.”

He worked a straight job right out of college, but the longest he has spent with one company is nine months.

“It has defined my career,” he said. “I wouldn’t be at this conference if it weren’t for the notability of my work that was made possible through the 1099 economy.”

Nanis is less concerned that the move toward on-demand work might leave some people in the lurch. Uber might not provide full-time work for every driver, but many drivers might not want full-time work, he said. They might want some income while preserving the flexibility to pursue other interests. Or they might want to get out of the house on a Friday night and experience their city’s nightlife vicariously, or they might enjoy meeting and talking to a variety of people.

Online, Amazon Mechanical Turk, which lets people perform tasks from home for small amounts of money per task, might provide a sense of usefulness or purpose to someone who can’t perform the work they used to do.

“In 100 years, there will be no jobs,” Nanis predicted. “That’s an exaggeration, but technology will take away more and more jobs, but that’s not bad because it also improves quality of life. People who are lower skilled will have to move up into more intellectually engaging work. Jobs that require empathy or deep concentration will be taken over last.”

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