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If you’ve ever called a Lyft, had Postmates bring food to your door or ordered a logo on Fiverr—you’ve participated in the gig economy.
On-demand apps and platforms that allow anyone to buy and sell services continue to proliferate. It is the future of the global marketplace—according to McKinsey, up to 162 million people in the US and Europe are employed in the gig economy.
This article digs into the who, what, why and how of the gig economy, and how it allows a new wave of “solopreneurs” to thrive.
But first, a definition.
Simply put, the gig economy is a labor market with a strong emphasis on short-term, freelance and contract jobs completed by people working as individual operators, as opposed to full-time employees. Gig workers are rideshare and delivery drivers, handymen, grocery shoppers, graphic designers, writers, developers and more. You can find them on platforms like Upwork, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Instacart and Shipt.
According to a 2018 report by Edison Research, of the 1,044 Americans surveyed, nearly a quarter made money in the gig economy. And of those, 44% relied on gigs as their primary income. Gig workers tend to be young, with the largest percentage (38%) being 18 to 34 years old. Check out the best cities in the US for gig economy workers here.
As with many major movements, a combination of business trends, tech and culture are shaping the gig economy’s emergence.
The 2007 global financial crisis fundamentally changed the way businesses operated. Companies of all sizes began prioritizing agility, preferring to access resources when needed instead of making full-time hires and therefore saving on overheads like office space, benefits and training.
Additionally, a contracting model allows businesses to access experts for specific projects or busy periods, benefiting from talent which might otherwise be too expensive to keep in-house permanently.
In tandem with this change in how businesses operate, tech platforms have sprung up, offering new ways to connect in a global marketplace. So instead of a business hiring a web developer, they can outsource (also known as “offshoring”) through online marketplaces.
All this means is that skilled individuals are in high demand in a gig-based market. And, empowered by this new ability to access income outside of traditional employment, people are taking advantage of new ways to earn a living. Not only are they selling skills to businesses, but also to other individuals via platforms like Airtasker or Upwork. These individuals are a type of “solopreneur,” weaving gigs together to create their incomes and operating as their own bosses.
Gig economy workers come in all shapes and sizes. They might have full-time jobs and run a side hustle in the evenings. Some run businesses. Some will blend multiple income streams, creating their incomes with a series of freelance gigs, micro-businesses and ecommerce.
What’s common to all solopreneurs is that they’re individuals running their own small business, who typically make use of tech-enabled platforms to sell their skills and are in charge of their own income and time.
Laura is a full-time freelance writer for businesses and makes about 70% of her income copywriting for various clients. She also sells homemade jewelry on Etsy, takes the odd short-term office contract, hosts a podcast with a friend and produces theater occasionally. Her income isn’t always predictable, but her lifestyle gives her the freedom to travel and pursue creative interests, and she enjoys being her own boss.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, previously underappreciated jobs were suddenly deemed “essential” by the government. Because of quarantines, social-distancing measures and curfews, gig economy workers, such as those working for grocery delivery apps, became heroes, as millions in lockdown relied on them for basic necessities.
The indispensability of gig workers coupled with the slew of layoffs that followed the pandemic exposed a harsh truth: Being an employee isn’t as secure as we once thought it was. When you’re an employee, you have one job. Lose that job, and you lose 100% of your income (unless you get unemployment benefits). But when you’re a gig worker, you have multiple contract jobs. Lose one—or even a few—and you still have some work rolling in.
The benefits of the gig economy are numerous. There’s the empowerment of being your own boss and choosing work that interests you. There’s the potential to make more money than is possible as an employee, depending on your skills.
Many people are drawn to the flexibility the gig economy allows beyond the traditional 9-to-5, and getting the right work-life blend or balance for them. According to a 2019 MetLife report, three in four respondents said being a gig worker gives them the flexibility to manage work and life.
Fancy traveling? Take your work along with you. Want to build a business? Make use of gig economy platforms like Upwork to connect with a global marketplace.
And because the gig economy works around your schedule, you don’t have to quit your desk job. Don’t be surprised, though, if you end up wanting to step away from traditional employment forever—49% of employees plan to leave their job in the next five years to be a full-time gig worker, according to MetLife.
Of course, there are negatives to joining the gig economy. Namely, it can be a struggle to bring in steady, reliable income. Unlike being an employee, as a gig worker, you can’t expect a paycheck every two weeks.
And that lack of stability can take a toll on your mental health. In its 2018 survey, Edison Research found that gig workers are more likely to have high anxiety levels than those in traditional employment. And those who rely on the gig economy as their primary source of income, 80% say it would be hard for them to cover an unexpected expense of $1,000.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed another downside of the gig economy: Even when demand is high, gig workers’ earnings can suffer. As Time magazine reported, although demand for services like grocery delivery skyrocketed during quarantine, so too did the supply of gig workers thanks to people who lost their jobs and needed a way to earn money. That meant more workers competing for each gig that came through, driving wages down.
And lastly, being a gig worker means you don’t get the benefits that come with traditional employment, such as health insurance, stock options and 401(k) matching. So you have to take that into account when calculating how much you’ll need to earn in your contract work to make it worth leaving your desk job.
Despite it becoming increasingly common, solopreneurship in the gig economy isn’t for everyone. If you’re considering becoming a gun for hire, ask yourself:
The great thing about being a solopreneur is that there is no right way to do it. And if you answered “no” to a few of those questions, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become a solopreneur—it just means you’ll need to develop some essential skills.
Based on our 20 years of research on workplace motivation, we’ve identified 48 motivations that shape how you operate at work.
We've picked out some of the motivations that are crucial if you want to be a successful gig worker:
Even if these skills don’t come naturally to you, you can still succeed in the gig economy! Through awareness and coaching, you can develop these skills over time.
From grocery delivery to rideshares to homestays, we’ll all probably be users of the gig economy at some point. Whether you decide to join in as a gig worker is a decision you’ll have to make. While taking on contract jobs gives you the autonomy to be your own boss and allows you to be selective with projects, it comes with challenges. Arming yourself with the above ten skills will boost your chances of success.
Regardless of its ups and downs, the gig economy is here to stay. Will you sign up for it?