Turns out this is the ‘gig economy’

I’VE been to lots of them, my son plays them round Manchester and now my life has turned into one. It turns out I am living a gig, or more fully that I am taking part in the ‘gig economy’.

Where gigs once used to be something musicians did and other people went along to watch, now a gig can be a way of life for anybody.

Working a gig, according a professor of business writing in last weekend’s Observer, is making the choice to do bits and pieces of work rather than working fulltime.

This choice was pretty much made for me and I am still working out the rules and exploring the bumpy terrain. Of course sometimes it is the case that something new has existed for ages under a different name. So a journalist, writer or musician working in the gig economy is just doing what members of their tribe have often and always done, which is to work freelance; to work for themselves rather than being employed by a company.

The roots of the word are interesting, with freelance dating back to the free companies of the Middle Ages which were, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, “free to sell themselves to any cause or master”. Interestingly, Brewers suggests that we probably owe the word to Sir Walter Scott as it first appears in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe “as a term for a knight with no allegiance to any single cause”.

The same source has no entry for ‘gig’ other than “gig-lamps” which is “an old slang term for spectacles, especially large round ones”. The allusion was to lanterns attached to a ‘gig’ or one-horse carriage.

As for the musical gig, Cambridge Dictionaries Online offers: “a single performance by a musician or group of musicians, especially playing modern or pop music”, which is one of those definitions that hardly need spelling out.

The gig economy is more than being a freelance, more than knitting together lots of single performances. To boil down what that business professor wrote: optimists sees the gig economy as an opportunity for boundless opportunity and innovation; while pessimists think ‘sod that’ all is portends is “a dystopian future of disenfranchised workers hunting for their next wedge of piecework”.

Why the gig economy is now a buzzword is down to digital technology, the curse of our age or the liberator of our age, depending on your outlook.

Ever since we started doing Airbnb, I keep reading that we are part of something or other, and now I discover that we are playing gig economics. Airbnb is a new spin on the more traditional way of doing things, in this case offering short-term accommodation to visitors.

The service couldn’t exist without the internet, and what this new digital channel does is link people with a need (a desire to stay somewhere) with those who have a service to offer (a spare room or a room vacated by a daughter away at university). This channel links the two together and arranges an exchange of mutual benefit (well, apart from having to scramble eggs at short notice). In other words, you don’t rent a room from Airbnb; instead you just visit that platform to see who can offer what.

If the gig economy ends up being a way for companies to avoid having to pay employees regular wages, then that won’t be for the general good. But if it allows people to pick and choose and fit work round their lives, rather than the other way round, then it might be beneficial. Early days yet, I guess. One obvious disadvantage is that those gigging away on the margins allow politicians to talk up all the new jobs being created.

What will all this mean for the future shape of life and work? Not sure anyone has that one mapped out yet.

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