“… a re-incarnation of an ancient evil?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent address to the TUC on the gig economy and the emotive language he intentionally used has stirred a very welcome debate. The Labour Party has set out its proposals to give gig economy workers more protection. The boss of John Lewis meanwhile has, interestingly, rejected a call for an ‘Amazon tax’. Into this mix, the tech giants are under fire as the EU grapples with copyright issues in the age of the internet.

Who though are in the gig economy? Whilst we often think of delivery drivers on zero hour contracts, they include artists, designers, writers, animators, foodies and videographers to name but a few. The end of jobs for life in the big corporations means that today’s workers need to be much more flexible and adaptable. When discussing the gig economy we must be mindful of the spectrum of people that are within it ranging from the very highly skilled to the unskilled.

The wrong end of the telescope?

I wonder though if we are looking at the issues arising from profound changes all around us the wrong way. A number of voices appear to be trying to put the genie back into the lamp by looking back to a now outdated understanding of work and the traditional employer/ employee relationship. It must be remembered that some workers who had jobs for life had jobs that were drudgery for them and unexciting. Interestingly many of the senior voices which are heard in public (such as the archbishop) are from an older generation, primarily baby boomers who were brought up in a post war economic model of the supremacy of capital ie the ownership of our own home, saving up for luxuries such as home appliances and having a decent final salary pension.

Today’s generations (gen X born 1965-76; gen Y/millennials born 1977-95; gen Z born 1996 onwards) whilst different from each other tend not to think in terms of ownership in the way their parents did but of leasing their way through life with monthly subscriptions. For some, they do not want to own their own substantial home (even if they could) but would rather live in smaller accommodation (often rented) and go out instead and explore the world. Perhaps taking a year out even as they are still progressing their careers. Such a mind-set is an anathema to many of an older generation. I would argue though that it is neither good nor bad, simply different.

It’s all change

Two massive impacts on our life in recent years have been the digital revolution and it’s connected sibling of globalisation. An international business can now be set up with no more than a smart phone with an internet connection. I am drafting this on a train whilst simultaneously chatting to a colleague on the Orient Express to Venice c/o Whatsapp and the wonders of 4G!

As we look at the future, we need to understand the world in which we now live. It is not good enough to hark back to the old days and try to tweak them for today. That simply won’t work not least because today’s generations don’t want it to work. Increasingly national governments seem less relevant with the tech giants having more influence over our lives than governments. The sovereignty of the nation state is being eroded as global issues require global answers.

Today’s generations have enormous freedom of opportunity but with that comes its own responsibility. It may mean encouraging workers not to stay in zero hours contacts that do not suit them. In a free market, talent will be poached and it is up to each of us to up our game and our skills if we want to progress.

A balance of work and leisure has been necessary since creation. Creating a work environment and business venture that is based around individual passion can only lead to increased productivity, focus and the creation of value.

The gig economy offers enormous opportunity to those in it. It can be a threat to big companies who take their workers for granted since workers can now move around so much more easily. Rather than impose outdated benefits on gig workers, should we not encourage freedom of movement so that gig workers have to be treated well for them to stay in role? It does also mean that the new generations need to take responsibility to save for their pensions in older age. It is likely though that people will stay in some kind of work albeit part-time for much longer.

Addressing the issues of the gig economy

One specific area arising from the gig economy that does need mentioning is ‘insecurity’. A full-time job offers security of employment and income that the self-employed do not have. It is right therefore that as we encourage entrepreneurship in the gig economy so we also build in safety nets just like the traditionally self-employed have always needed. Having job freedom can be creative, energising and a creator of wealth but it can also give rise to insecurity and fear when work isn’t available. The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is well worth reading as is the Government’s response to it. As the balance of those in full-time employed work compared to self-employment shifts towards self-employment, so the issue of financial security to pay the weekly bills becomes a factor for more and more people.

Although said with the very best of motives I wonder if sometimes older voices we hear in the public square today are a little patronising and out of touch. Businesses that look after their workers will thrive not least because of the commitment they naturally command. Other businesses (which we could all name) and treat their workers badly will ultimately fail as good companies will drive them to the wall. Carillion is a sad example of such failure not least in its appalling treatment of its sub-contractors.

The future looks good

What we do need to do is inculcate a culture of entrepreneurship that encourages many talented people to break away and do their own thing, in their way and according to their values. Central Working is a small but growing co-working space business of 3,000 members (including SME Strategies as it happens) many of whom are in the gig economy. Central Working is a business community ably led by its CEO, Grant Powell and founded by James Layfield. James had the vision to create co-working spaces which built community, offered mutual support and encouraged entrepreneurship as well as respecting the free market on which so much of our wealth creation is based.

Research has shown that mentoring can greatly help the success of entrepreneurs. In mentoring an objective view of the business can be taken, a business plan can be prepared (if there isn’t one already) and implemented, business risks are identified and mitigated, issues can be prioritised and focus given to key areas and valuable business management tools can be introduced. WealthBeing is just such a support – it is both a comprehensive guide and a team of able mentors to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

Over time, as the traditional model of work and business erodes away, new digitally based platforms will have the opportunity to bridge between the old enterprises and the emerging gig economy. As the global economy continues to be disrupted, the gig economy may well grow into an engine of economic and social transformation — giving workers, everywhere, a breath of fresh air. I suspect that our prosperity for tomorrow lies in this forward looking thinking not harking back to days now long since gone.

A fascinating insight into the some success factors for professional (my word) workers in the gig economy can be found in this excellent Harvard Business Review article on the gig economy.