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The Gig Economy Is Big And Here To Stay. Here’s How Workers Are Surviving And Thriving

By Nancy Dahlberg The Miami Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While some entrepreneurs have enthusiastically jumped into the "Gig Economy" others have been thrust into it by necessity, as full-time jobs have slipped away.

The Miami Herald

Tiffany Zadi creates leather shoulder bags, totes, accessories and jewelry.

While trolling thrift shops for materials she'll recycle for her fashions, she'll snatch up vintage finds and resell them through Etsy. The Little Havana resident also teaches piano to several students, and lately she's been leading handicraft "experiences" for small groups through Airbnb.

Joseph Nay builds and designs websites, including steady work for a content studio and a digital marketing agency. That's led to other freelance jobs. The largely self-taught Hollywood resident also creates and edits motion graphics and assists a nonprofit focused on helping Haiti. "It's been a fun ride, tiring but fun," he said.

Zadi and Nay leverage their skills, experience and passions into a diverse portfolio of multiple work assignments and revenue streams to thrive in the Gig Economy, a fast-growing worker movement that includes consulting and contracting, temping, freelancing, self-employment, side gigs and on-demand workers.

While Zadi and Nay enthusiastically jumped into the Gig Economy -- in fact, Zadi gave up a law career to pursue her passions -- others are thrust into it by necessity, as full-time jobs have slipped away.

Some want the supplemental income as wages remain largely stagnant while still others use it as a buffer as they ease into retirement.

Experts differ on exactly how large the Gig Economy is -- these jobs don't fit neatly into categories the government tracks -- as well as on the pluses and drawbacks for workers and the economy.

But there is consensus that the Gig Economy is growing faster than traditional employment. And it is here to stay.

A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute Report found that about 27 percent of working-age people in the United States and Europe engage at least partially in independent work. A 2016 study by the Minneapolis Fed found a 37 percent engagement rate in the U.S., while government economists have estimated that about 40 percent of Americans will be working outside traditional full-time jobs by 2020.

"There's this myth that the Gig Economy equals Uber driver," said Diane Mulcahy, who recently authored a book on the subject. "If you are not a full-time employee in a full-time job, you are part of the Gig Economy."

While gig workers have been around as long as there have been handymen, tutors, writers and musicians, what's new about the Gig Economy is how quickly it has infiltrated white-collar professions and industries such as healthcare, finance, legal and technology, said Mulcahy.

She is a private equity advisor for the Kauffman Foundation, which studies and supports entrepreneurship. As proof, she said, look at the growth of national online placement services like Toptal for tech and finance workers and Axiom for lawyers.

The Gig Economy is likely larger in South Florida -- always a hotbed for self-employment and small business activity -- than in most parts of the country.

Here, there are fewer large corporations than in other metros. While the young Miami economy has always depended on foreign immigration for its population growth, Miami-Dade tends to draw more professional and higher-income immigrants who create new businesses, said Kevin Greiner, a senior fellow at the Florida International University Metropolitan Center.

In Miami-Dade, the number of nonemployer-firms (establishments without employees), tracks higher than the national average and the number of self-employed is greater, too, Greiner points out. In addition, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area ranked No. 1 among 40 large metros in this year's Kauffman Foundation Index of Startup Activity measuring the rate new business creation.

"These are the numbers that usually get ignored but it is a huge chunk of the economy," said Greiner. Miami-Dade has about 462,000 nonemployer establishments -- or 85 percent of the 545,000 companies -- versus 75 percent nationally. "Nonemployer companies, the self-employed and the creation of new businesses have always been more important to Miami-Dade than other comparable metro areas in the U.S."

To service these freelancers and self-proprietors, a wave of co-working spaces has recently moved in, stretching from Fort Lauderdale to South Miami. There's even an active freelancers' group, CollabMiami, that jumps from space to space with popup meetups.

Nationally and locally, the one-two punch of tech advancements and recessionary times accelerated the Gig Economy. Just before and during the most recent recession came the launch of several key tech-enabled online services, including ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, Airbnb for extra rooms and on-demand websites helping consumers find people to teach, write, serve or fix something for them. Other websites popped up to pool contract workers -- from call center reps to hospitality workers to lawyers and accountants.

At the same time, corporations were already increasingly opting for cheaper contract labor that can be deployed when and where they need it.

"In just one generation, the corporate gravy train full of plentiful, progressive, benefit-rich and secure full-time jobs has left the station," wrote Mulcahy in her book, "The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time off and Financing the Life You Want!" At the same time, workers are getting used to non-full-time work and even choosing it because of the freedom it can afford, she said. "The Gig Economy is a new way of work that seems to be working."

Indeed, a national survey by the Freelancers Union and online freelance job board Upwork found that two-thirds of the 55 million Americans who freelanced in 2016 did so out of choice, up 10 points from their survey in 2014.

"[Workers] want the autonomy, the flexibility, the efficiency and the control that the Gig Economy offers," said Mulcahy in an interview. "The Gig Economy is very big, very broad and very diverse."

But that doesn't mean navigating it is easy. No steady paycheck, no health insurance, no sick pay, no vacation pay. What happens when there's too much month left at the end of your money?

"That's the hardest part," said Zadi, 36, the sole proprietor of Heist, her leather fashion company. She developed other businesses around her creative flair and is always seeking ways to monetize what she is already doing. While trolling thrift shops and garage sales for leather goods she can recycle for her fashions, she saw vintage finds she thought she could sell. Now she has an active vintage shop on Etsy; sometimes that is the steadiest cash flow of all. And when Airbnb launched its Experiences on its platform, she jumped at the chance. On a recent Saturday, a mother and her two teen daughters participated in an outing she led.

Zadi went to the University of Miami for undergraduate studies in music and graduated from law school in New England in 2009, pretty much the worst year to jump into the job market. She snagged some temp law work but made jewelry on the side. Once she finished one of her law gigs in the fall of 2014, she thought she would take the rest of the year off to focus on her art. "I never went back. I guess I wasn't into office life."

She says she lives simply and combines vacation time with trips to trade shows, where she showcases her wares. Because buying a house was important to her, Zadi lived at her parents' home while she saved for a larger down payment to keep her monthly mortgage payments low.

She's got the right idea, according to Mulcahy. Giggers should aim to create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings and much less debt. That may mean downsizing their own vision of the American Dream. Increasingly people can access the lifestyle they want rather than own it, such as renting a home and going car-free, Mulcahy said.

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