The Gig Economy: It's here to stay, so how can we adapt?

Updated: Jul 25


(Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash)

This week's post is in two parts. First, we look at trends within the gig economy - a labour market characterised by short term work contracts and freelance work, and secondly we'll have a quick look at the latest news in AI and automation.

We've looked at the gig economy before, and from what we read there are pros and cons, including:

The short-term benefits can seem tempting: workers can choose who they work for, they may see an increase in pay, highly-skilled and in-demand workers may see huge pay rises, and they can largely structure their days to suit their preferred working hours. So far, so good.

But then come potential downsides: contracts abruptly cancelled, lost jobs due to lower-priced competition, long, ever-changing hours, stagnating or decreasing wages for low-skilled workers - there's no minimum wage because freelancers are technically not employees, no access to benefits, and the danger of a 'hand to mouth' existence.

So what's the latest news? Our first article from CNBC is based on Upwork's Freelancing in America 2018 Survey. A key takeaway from the survey is that freelancers view skills as being far more important for their work than college degrees. This is important, because the benefits of having a college may no longer exist:

"Rapid technological change, combined with rising education costs, have made our traditional higher-education system an increasingly anachronistic and risky path. The cost of a college education is so high now that we have reached a tipping point at which the debt incurred often isn't outweighed by future earnings potential."

The future of work won't be about degrees, it will be about lifelong learning and re-skilling, and freelancers are more than twice as likely as other workers to demonstrate this mindset. Shall we add that to the 'pros' of working in the gig economy?

In a somewhat contrary view to the prevailing narrative, this opinion piece from the New York Times argues that it's not technology that's driving societal change, but rather political decisions about how we choose to organise our world. It argues that:

"This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the insecurity and other shortcomings of the gig economy. For it reminds us that far from being an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice. It is not a result of an algorithm; it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers."

In short, it's not tech. that's disrupting jobs, but policy and corporations. The author argues that the gig economy represents the severing of obligations between employer and worker, and the collapse of the protections of people, and insecurity of work is not inevitable.

However, our next article from medium.com takes a different view again - that the gig economy enables people to live like on their own terms. The looks at 'The shortening of work', with work moving beyond the freelancer to the 'tasker' (see the article for a graphic). It examines the transition from a 'pipe' to 'platform' model of work, in which freelancers and clients interact through dynamic, decentralised, platform-based ecosystems.

There are downsides to manage of course, but the author argues that platform-based freelancing places the power (and therefore protections) back in the hands of the freelancers themselves as the platform allows a form of collective bargaining, among other benefits.

An interesting perspective, and one worth considering.

To conclude our section on the gig economy, a piece of research from Geonet. The abstract share insights about how gig economy workers in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South East Asia self organise around platforms and social media. The organisational structure is unique to the gig economy, labour unions are absent, and workers can share information efficiently, but they are also fragmented by nationality, occupation and the types of platform used.

Perhaps a move to a more comprehensive platform-based freelance model might be appropriate? Whatever the model, lifelong learning is a key to success in the gig economy.

AI and Automation Updates

Our first update is an interview with Andrew Ng, a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence. He founded Google Brain and two other AI startups, and shares his thoughts on trends within AI and why the technology is here to stay. Key insights are:

  • AI Will Be Wired in Like Electricity - as ubiquitous as electricity and the Internet.

  • A Conditional Basic Income Could Combat Job Loss - he emphasises the term conditional, due to dignity in work and the opportunity to retrain.

  • We’ll Need to Change Education (With Help From Employers) - lifelong learning and up-skilling will be essential, and businesses will have a key role to play.

  • Automation Will Show Up at the Doctor’s Office and Beyond - AI will be everywhere.

  • AI Winter Is Not Coming… - investment in AI will continue and grow.

  • …but Our Timelines Are Too Rosy - AI won't develop human-like intelligence anytime soon, and CEOs often paint an overly-optimistic view of its potential and power.

Robots and AI are penetrating every sector of the economy. In many sectors, workers cost $36 an hour and robots $4 per hour to operate. To remain competitive, business are starting to have no choice but to automate. The New York Times examines the pros and cons of automation, and provides a good overview of current trends and opportunities. Some excerpts:

"Over the next decade, the biggest job losses will most likely affect low-skilled workers performing repetitive tasks, like machine operators, assembly line workers, dishwashers, drivers and preparers of fast food. Certain white-collar areas, like data entry, accounting and payroll, will suffer as well."

This is consistent with the research and articles we read and share.

Demand, however, will probably surge for data analysts, software developers, web designers, IT experts, e-commerce specialists, health care providers, entrepreneurs and social media experts, according to the World Economic Forum report. Sectors that involve human skills, like sales, marketing, customer service and even art and entertainment, will also be in high demand, the report said.​

Consistent again, especially with WEF reports being referenced.

"While new jobs will offset losses, retraining and education will be critical. As many as 375 million workers globally will need to change job categories and learn new skills to survive the transition."

Learning will be key.

To finish, a quick note that the world's first fully automated AI-powered robot warehouse has opened in Shanghai. The article largely looks at the work of Mujin, an industrial robot manufacturer and its founder's (Rosen Diankov) vision of standardising total automation. He is optimistic of the potential of automation to become a net work creator for people, but argues that cultural perceptions are powerful:

"In the U.S., robot technology is often undervalued and directly compared to the value of human workers."-Rosen Diankov, co-founder and CTO, Mujin

In related news, Amazon is reducing its holiday season workforce this year, largely due to automation of its warehouses. One could argue that in this case at least, automation might not be the net jobs creator some claim it to be.

Thank you for following us this week. We welcome any and all feedback on this new weekly format, and please email me at sean@futurelearningproject.com with any questions or suggestions you have.

Sean

#GigEconomy #Automation #ArtificialIntelligence #Lifelonglearning

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