The Gig Economy Improves Employee Working Conditions

I have worked in a lot of places before becoming a full time consultant. Most of the time, I joined a company because I believed in their cause or I was enamoured with their product. At least one time, I joined a company because of a friend from school had tried to poached me for years.

Most of the time, my reason for leaving was because I got fed up with company politics. This has taken various forms over the years; either management changed from a flat structure to a hierarchical one, or a very loud co-worker started enforcing their ways of working, and got their way for being the loudest in the room. At least one time, I quit because a pivot changed the goals into something that I didn't feel aligned with.

Most of the time (except for the one time where they allowed the loud co-worker to rule), nobody was at fault. The company and I just grew apart. We had to break up.

I've had my run-ins with HR in various places I've worked. I used to think that HR was there to help employees fit well into the organisation. Oh, how young and naive I was. To think that a system that levels employees with office chains and other resources to be used by the company to achieve its goals, could ever have the interests of the employees in mind.

I've quit quite a few jobs out of fear of getting fired.

The lesson I should have learned pretty much every time I did that was that it is unwise to make fear-driven decisions. It's really not hard to find a new job as a software engineer. With the exception of around 2003, it has always been a sellers market. Just stick around and try to enjoy what you do, and if the company at some point stops liking you - for whatever reason - then there are a bunch of other companies ready to pounce at getting a qualified software engineer.

At some point, recruiters started asking me if the reason for me switching jobs often was that I was a consultant, and that planted the seed, that maybe I should be. I mean, for the most part, I joined a startup, built their product and helped them bring it to market, and then moved on top the next thing - and I did this at the price point of a regular employee rather than a temporary consultant.

The gig economy

The usual argument against the gig economy is that employees become easily replaceable and don't get any of the safety net that comes with a permanent position.

Anyone who is making this argument obviously never worked in a position with two weeks notice. As a contractor I have a one months notice built into my contracts. Twice that of a regular employee, and I make about twice as much an hour.

Of course I don't get a pension plan, or dental insurance from my contractee (what used to be my employer), but since I formed my own LLC, I am getting all of those things as business expenses, at a significantly lower tax bracket.

Speaking of tax bracket: I get to choose how much I pay out to myself, and the rest stays inside the company (potentially to be invested), and doesn't get taxed anywhere as heavily.

In the end, the gig economy is actually better than the old economy, where employers tricked employees into thinking that minimum wage and two weeks notice was just great.

I now live in a country where unions have had their reign for many decades, and we have gained a lot of benefits from that. Much longer notice periods, chief among those.

I am foregoing many of those benefits by working as a consultant. I am betting on my ability to negotiate better working conditions on my own than a union could do for me. The thing is, that when a union negotiates on behalf of many employees, they get to negotiate lunch break duration down to the minute - and I don't care if my lunch break is 29 minutes or 30 minutes (real world example from Danish Postal Services), but multiply that by 100.000 workers and they can claim to have saved millions, which has absolutely zero impact on the quality of life of the worker in the end.

Unions have outlived themselves, and it is time that we start exploiting the fact that our employers may need us more than we need them.

Digital nomadism

Along with being my own LLC and working as a contractor comes the ability to choose to work for companies across borders. In a post-corona world, we have discovered that we don't actually need to physically be present in an office to do the job we do in front of a computer.

There are advantages to being in the same timezone, but if my customer (former employer) is in CET, then they don't need to care or even know if I am in Sweden or in South Africa.

This is possible as a regular employee too, but the external status I have as a contractor removes me somewhat from the tight knit bonds and empowers me to remove myself physically, and work for myself and to prioritise myself more easily because I am less invested in the well-being of the customer than I would have been in the well-being of a company that I felt that I was an integral part of.

Being a digital nomad is about prioritising myself over my employer (turned customer).

Being a gig worker can just as much be about prioritising myself. It can be about working just as much as I need to, and remembering to live my life and smell the roses in between jobs.

Recession proof

So what happens in the next recession?

During the corona pandemic, a lot of people have lost their jobs. I was lucky enough to work in an industry which hasn't been impacted at all.

I'm also lucky enough to live in a socialist country where the system will catch me if I fall, where I will never starve in the streets. I happily pay my taxes (which are lower after turning LLC, btw.) to give me a government sanctioned safety net.

But what if my chosen industry was affected? What if I didn't have a safety net?

No amount of employment benefits is going to help you if your employer goes bankrupt. Having set up your life in a way where you expect to change jobs at a higher frequency might actually help to entice your to not live from paycheck to paycheck, but rather work to ensure that you have some money in the bank for a worst case scenario.

Privilege check

One final thing for me to explore is to check my own privilege. I am a middle aged, straight, white, cis, male, who grew up in white suburbia. I have no congenital diseases. I found my way into a profession (software engineering), which has been mostly recession proof for several decades. I've never experienced poverty, war, famine.

Had I been in a different position, then I might want to utilise unions a bit more.

I realise that working conditions for (e.g.) food delivery workers is vastly different from those I experience, and their version of the gig economy is vastly different from mine.

At their end of the spectrum, something different might be needed - like work places that try to entice lower turnover rates by offering free education (e.g. Starbucks).

Perspective

There probably isn't one silver bullet which solves all the workforce problems we see today.

What I see, though, is that in our market (the software industry), and probably in a lot of other mainstream office jobs, the rank and file employees stand to gain from the gig economy, more so than they do from classical employment schemes.