When we think of a regular job, we usually picture one in an office or another workplace with an eight-hour workday, monthly salary, medical insurance, and paid annual leave. However dull and uninspired that may sound, there is no denying that such conditions go a long way in securing the employees’ interests. Free time is guaranteed, as is safety. But, most importantly, the employer bears all the risks: workers must be paid no matter how successful the enterprise is. There are also significantly more legal requirements regarding the amount of pay and conditions of labour than there used to be before the social movements of the past two centuries.
Long-term jobs with stable pay have existed since the dawn of human history. There were always clerks, soldiers, miners, and servants. However, the specifics of their work depended on nothing but what the employer was ready to offer and what they were willing to accept. In other words, their contracts were based on the realities of the market. Small businesses followed the same rules: their owners worked as much as necessary for the price they were able to negotiate. For them, little has changed over time.
The first labour legislation in the modern sense of the word was enacted in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution enabled large-scale production in which the individual approach to wage-earners was no longer possible. At the same time, the Enlightenment and the subsequent French Revolution provided the intellectual and ideological grounds for the concept of workers’ rights. Trade unions began to emerge. In Britain, they were legalised as early as 1824. However, it was not until a century later that labour regulations became the norm.
Today, almost every country has a labour code or its equivalent that deals with the matters of working hours, safety, remuneration, welfare, strikes, and unionising. Large corporations often hire an in-house lawyer to ensure compliance, and most reputable law firms have a separate department dedicated to labour disputes.
Such developments are not necessarily for the better. First, it is not uncommon that the expenses of hiring local workers outweigh the benefits. Production along with the relevant investments are therefore transferred to jurisdictions where regulation is less strict. Secondly, trade unions and worker movements naturally lean toward the left-wing views due to their inherent collectivism.
However, what works for an employee does not necessarily work for an independent contractor. It is not uncommon for companies to seek the services of such individuals, bypassing many restrictions. Sometimes they are employees in all but a name, receiving monthly payments, insurances, vacations, and other benefits. Business, on the other hand, protects itself from lawsuits and fines. This is best suited for companies that look for trained professionals and offer long-term contracts. It may also be useful in terms of taxes: for example, so-called ‘individual entrepreneurs’ in post-Soviet countries enjoy reduced income tax rates.
As for short-term contracts, another model has gained popularity over the past few years. Under such a contract, a company limits its activity to a platform that connects workers and clients, usually in a particular sphere, such as taxi and transportation, food delivery, or home rental. Whether one needs a plumber or a physician, there is a platform where he can be found. Thousands of writers, artists, and programmers are searching freelance resources for new projects. This form of interaction is known as the gig economy.
In 2018, Gallup published an article claiming that “36% of U.S. workers participate in the gig economy through either their primary or secondary jobs.” The firm provided curious statistics, comparing answers from the three groups of respondents: traditional workers, contingent gig workers (temporary workers nonetheless employed in a conventional manner), and independent gig workers, such as online platform users. It appears that independent workers are most satisfied with their jobs, scoring highest on almost every characteristic from autonomy and flexibility to creativity, stability, and fairness of remuneration. Contingent workers, on the other hand, are generally comparable to regular employees.
It is easy to see why short-term jobs are conquering the market. They allow people to experience the freedom and moral comfort of a small business, something far more traditional than any nine-to-five job. They are also the natural response to our age of the internet and globalisation, ever-changing circumstances, and the over-bureaucratised corporate cultures. One man with a camera and a YouTube account can rival the mainstream media. A mother can take care of her children without the anxiety of constantly asking for leaves.
There is, of course, competition, and success is never guaranteed. On the other hand, there are professional fulfilment as well as many opportunities for those who offer something worthy of notice. At the same time, markets benefit from the variety of goods, services, and prices, making it easier for clients to find precisely what they need. Currently, there is a tendency to greater segmentation as people are looking for tailor-made products and services rather than universal solutions. The flexibility of independent gig workers and their comparatively small clientele allows them to address particular needs without being constrained by the corporate policies.
Commonly cited downsides of the gig economy are the absence of social protection and possible scheduling failures, resulting in overwork. Some jurisdictions even go as far as classifying gig workers as employees entitled to certain benefits. But is it right to shield people from their lack of organisational skills or the mode of work they have chosen for themselves? Freedom, after all, comes with responsibility.
It should be said that this arrangement is highly lucrative for the platform owners. Whether it is a good thing depends mainly on one’s views on corporations, but it is hard to argue with the fact that there is value in their products. And while monopolies may be a problem, the presence of large businesses is generally good for the national economy.
Like the artisans of the past, the contractors of our days have to rely on their skills and agility. Their achievements are their own, and so are their failures; they get what they deserve without a grand structure safeguarding their lives. It is a system of freedom and fairness that is highly efficient and, as data shows, satisfying for all parties involved.
The world is changing fast. Those who seek a regular job can still get one and will probably be able to do so in the future, but their numbers are likely to diminish. This is especially true for post-industrial societies. The internet has given humanity countless opportunities to explore. With a little bit of ingenuity, effort, and luck, all can find activities that matches their inclinations best.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.