A salty take on the gig economy

Once upon a time on Twitter dot com… Yeah, I don’t think I could ever escape it, and if you’re a regular here, I can hear you chuckling. In the longer run, I think I could rename this blog to “your weekly Twitter opinion newsletter” so that you, my dear Reader, can stay in a loop (perhaps even more helpful if you’re reading my tweets and trying to figure out why the heck I’m giving you my hottest take on something). It could have all the dankest memes and the newest insults, but I still live in a hope that I could detach myself from it a bit more. I’m not getting as angered by the Outrage of the Day as I used to, and that proves I managed to switch off social media a little more often, but there are still the moments I’m just itching to say something truly important that bothers me. And this tweet I’ve seen today came close enough to the conversation I’ve had recently, so I can neatly summarise it in one post.

What prompts me to write today? The tweet below.

One of the newspapers liked by nobody in particular tweeted about the Deliveroo driver that had to go to extreme lengths to deliver the meals to customers in midst of a blizzard. While you can praise how resourceful he is, it’s also maddening that he had to do it at all in such severe weather conditions, paid an hourly wage that possibly wouldn’t be able to get him at least one of the meals which he delivered, for someone else’s comfort. It’s dehumanising, and it makes you think of exploitation that we all comply with. Much has been said about the technological implications and the gig economy drastically transforming the landscape for the young people, and it has been faced with so much criticism from those who accuse them of being whiny without considering their circumstances. Hey ho, that’s always been the case, too. If you don’t believe me, remember what Socrates once said: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Okay. We got it out the way with a classical period quote.

Back to the point. I love me a good debate, so recently I’ve had a discussion with a fellow creative regarding the gig economy and its implications for artists. Granted, it’s never been easy to get into a creative field, hence “the starving artist” myth that’s so prominent in history. In a way, if you’re picking the creative field, you’re a dreamer but you know what you’re in for. It’ll be frustrating, but you’ve got something to say through your art and it’s stronger than the rational need of making loads of money by becoming a business person, an engineer, or something similarly lucrative (though it’s a usual joke thrown into conversations about the lives of artistically inclined people, it’s not to be offensive here; different people enjoy doing different things, they’ve all got their struggles and they’re all useful for the society, and I’m stating it just because it’s safer to state it in the age of online misunderstandings). Realistically, you need to pick up freelance gigs along the way, and this is how our conversation kicked off.

While I’m lucky to be employed by a flexible company to do creative work while side-hustling and learning about the things I consider my true calling, my conversational partner is trying to freelance full-time. They’re a big fan of the gig economy instead. Having read that “the freelance revolution” is inevitable and you need to get on the bandwagon early because that’s essentially how everyone will work in the future, they tried hard to sell it to me. “It frees you from working for The Man, you can make it work for yourself,” they said to me. “In the past, my industry was controlled by the big names and now there’s a teeny chance I can do it all on my own. It’s definitely a good thing,” they explained. But because I tend to be argumentative, I threw a few counterarguments in. I see the pros, but I can’t get the cons out of my mind.

The gig economy has been associated with the greater flexibility. You choose when you complete your assignment, and it’s a blessing if your morning doesn’t kick off until it’s 3pm. I like to think that I work better in the evenings and at nights, and it’s amazing to be able to do the work at your most creative time. But it’s also a side effect of the world that’s opened up: we’re working across timezones now, so it’s a logical extension of working around the clock and across the globe.

However, the new setup also drives wages down. The market made of creatives is huge, and all the lifestyle design people tell you that “you can do it too”. Oh, keep on hustling! When the pay goes down, you don’t get to maintain your work/life balance; it instantly becomes less of your choice. And such a combination makes people disposable — if you don’t pick up a gig, someone else will. That makes it much less inclusive than advertised.

Even though the gig economy gives people a shot to try and get into the tight industry that’s still mostly reliant on contacts, the arts have never transformed from a David-Goliath battle into a fully fair-play field. These days, it’s just as hard for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get started. There’s a handful of organisations and schemes that provide grants for outstanding creative projects, but more and more of them are being cut. That certainly isn’t enough to cover for those who need to work themselves to death to develop what they really want to do. And with the Internet, it’s often tough to truly cut the middlemen out of funding no matter how much you’d like to think otherwise. For music and film, it’s the whole streaming discussion that never seems settled. For journalism (and writing in general) the sheer abundance of free content, advertisers that settle for convenience, social media engagement numbers, and pivoting to whatever flavour of the month is.

What’s worse, you don’t always get mentorship when you work on gigs. You get experience, granted, but there’s another consideration. Because the assignments are so short, there’s normally less to work on than in an arrangement where your mentor observes you long-term and helps you to pinpoint your strengths and overcome your weaknesses. You likely got yourself into debt to pay for your arts education, but you still need to put the money in to grow. Cue the courses and the events, an expense out of your pocket. Logically, nobody’s gonna pay it for you if you’re not an investment for the company — it’s business, baby, isn’t it?

A much narrower route to build it up for yourself on your own stretches ahead, and it’s often trial-and-error. In the times when the creatives often rely on five-star reviews on various freelance gig sites to go on, and with people having social media fully loaded at all times, the mistakes are much more difficult to handle. That can often hinder the chances of getting a better opportunity in the future if you’re likely to be defined by a comment section on your profile. Plus you’re starting to juggle many more different hats; that of your own publicist, too. It makes you a small business owner, dressed up under a sexier name of an entrepreneur on your distant cousin’s and all the friends of the rabbit’s online profiles, and gives you a variety challenges you need to tackle all by yourself. It requires skills that take years to develop, so it’s often difficult to sail smoothly at the beginning.

Much has been said about workers’ rights, too. Zero-hours contracts in the service industry and the new arrangements of the gig economy hardly give you the protection that a company is rightfully obliged to provide you. It becomes so much more than just chasing the work. It’s your insurance, your sick pay, your holidays, your protection against loopholes in the system. My father, working in the service sector, comes to mind when I speak about this. In an industrial city in Poland he lives in, and hitting the age when he should be rightfully entitled to retirement, he’s still working because of lack of the guaranteed rights for those who work on so-called “junk contracts”. Throughout my childhood in the times of post-communist transformation, I barely saw him at home as he tried to provide for us. He’s worked for almost 300 hours a month, often in shifts longer than 24 hours (plus two-hour commute both ways), being paid an equivalent of roughly £0.80 per hour. When he was sick, he refused to see a doctor so that they don’t keep him at home with a note that would deprive him of income for a couple of days. Seeing this throughout my early years led me to develop a certain work ethic and deep gratitude for the opportunities I get, but nothing can bring back the time I could’ve spent with him, as well as his wellbeing.

That illustrates the dreadful impact of lack of care for any human being working on a dehumanising arrangement. And it’s pretty much the same for the arts. In the film industry, a recent case of Michelle Williams not being paid for film reshoots is a perfect example. There are many different factors that come into it (gender was one of them), and the fact that her representatives, who take care of her fully paid co-star too, failed to do anything is disillusioning. But if it’s painful at that level of stardom, imagine someone coping with it outside of the spotlight. For most of the freelancers, it’s hard to arrange real time off, and there’s no department behind them if any conflict arises. If you fail to find yourself a gig to work on, you can easily end up without any income and there’s nothing to protect you. More and more people decide to join unions, just like the LA Times journalists did when they were threatened to be replaced by unpaid contributors. The Huffington Post itself ceased its unpaid contributors’ programme, too, in favour of paid writers who can research their content (and again, that solves many more problems, i.e. the fake news issue). It’s really heartening to see people uniting and trying to secure the rights for themselves, but it’s sad that the 21st century circled back to so many exploitative practices that we thought were eliminated.

To sum up: the entire idea of freelance revolution is not bad since it serves specific purposes and gives a spark of opportunity to those outside of the arts industry who yearn to get in. It gives greater flexibility and allows people to develop different skills, too. You can definitely be satisfied as a part of it. But there’s a thin line between a chance to do something if you’re given a shot and the opportunity that can be only fully explored by those who have a back-up. Hopefully, those who have a real impact on how it can be done see through this and take responsibility to challenge what seems to be an awful norm.

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