Britain’s Move Toward The Gig Economy

For some Britons, the gig economy represents freedom and flexibility, for others, low-paid and worryingly precarious employment. Is the country ready for gig economy dominance?

In April, the Office for National Statistics released a report on zero-hours contracts. They found that the number of people engaged in employment of this type had risen by 100,000 from November 2016 to November 2017.

6 million UK adults have already made the transition into the gig economy, a figure that appears to be steadily rising. With an ever increasing gig economy workforce, fronted by the likes of Uber and Deliveroo, does this spell the end for Britain’s conventional 9 to 5 working pattern?

Is a future where the gig economy dominates a cause for concern or a marker of a new transformative shift, providing social ascension?

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The working revolution

An independent survey commissioned by HealthTech start-up WeMa Life recently looked into the rise of the gig economy based on a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 UK adults.  

The findings show that around one in five working UK adults work within the gig economy. 71 percent of those have said that the greatest appeal is the flexibility it offers. For 46 percent the benefits of flexibility include having more time for other commitments.  

The shift towards a gig oriented economy is indicative of a cultural transformation in how we work, as the idea of a ‘multidisciplinary millennial’ becomes more commonly adopted by younger generations. Today, it is not unusual to find a young adult who balances responsibilities in various industries, even if some of their work is unpaid.

Experience in different industries makes for a new population who have diverse career prospects but perhaps are lacking specialised skills. Online technologies have a highly transformative impact as around 50 percent of those with flexible work say that apps and online platforms are vital in finding employment, making access to several careers more attainable.

Photo by Franklin Heijnen

Accessing job opportunities for those working in the gig economy are made are easier when new start-ups dedicate their service to connecting freelancers with businesses. Start-ups such as The Work Crowd are specifically designed to connect freelancers with a marketing and PR background to companies. Finding work has never been so convenient.

The survey commissioned by WeMa Life concludes from its findings that flexibility remains the greatest attraction of the gig economy, and can empower a new section of the workforce that were previously unable to access full-time work.  Of these changes, popularity of food delivery apps remains steadily rising. It’s not uncommon to find a Deliveroo rider cycling down your local high street.

Julio, who works for Deliveroo finds that the job’s flexibility is the most encouraging part of the job. As a student, he favours having autonomy over the hours he works which supports his academic lifestyle. Leon, another Deliveroo employer, says the work is “convenient” as the area he covers is local to him. Em who previously worked for Uber Eats, found its feature of paying employers whilst they wait between deliveries a positive aspect of the job.

Technological advancements and career diversity offer endless prosperity to dreamers, but do the perks of the gig economy come at a cost?  

Photo by Samuel Zeller

Cause for Concern

Although the appeal of flexibility yields a sense of empowerment, as employers are able to determine their routine, statements such as ‘the work is incredibly enriching’, ‘rewarding’ or ‘meaningful’ were not vocalised. Deliveroo employees only gave their company a rating of 2.9 stars for career opportunities, with the highest distribution of 1 star ratings.  

Despite an astounding compound annual growth rate of 924 per cent, Deliveroo has faced intense media scrutiny over the past couple of years concerning poor employment benefits. In December income cover was finally made available to Deliveroo employers, including sick and leave pay, after years of strike action.

At first glance, the decision appears to be a step towards the right direction, but the insurance – which is sourced externally, courtesy of Perkbox and specialist insurer Bikmo – is optional, as employers opt-in at a cost of £1.85 per week. The partnership perhaps signifies a new approach towards solving employer concerns. Collaborative partnerships allow businesses to focus on developing their services whilst maintaining cost effectiveness.

Optimistically, this collaborative arrangement encourages a new age of start-ups. It also avoids the conventional business model of a domineering conglomerate, as more start-ups are able to offer specific services that assist other businesses.

Photo by Ryan Tang

However the fluidity of the free market leaves the door open for businesses to patch up employer rights with self-serving partnerships, rather than solving the source of tension.  In this context it is very easy for businesses to exploit workers in such positions, warranting state regulation and union action necessary in particular instances.

The capacity for employee exploitation is a concern for gig economy workers, as according to WeMa Life, 55 per cent of those already working within the gig economy do not feel that they are suitably protected by current legislation surrounding fair rates and on-time payment.

Of those contemplating the shift, 28 percent of full time workers have raised concerns surrounding financial stability. There is a fear that they may not source enough money from this model of employment to support their lifestyle.

In an economic climate where a first-time buyer needs to save a minimum deposit of £12,048 for a mortgage on an average priced property, flexible work that pays enough may prove to be more of a fantasy than a reality.

As technology and attitudes towards work continue to evolve, the current transition towards the gig economy signifies a new cultural shift in the UK. While it offers increased choice, flexibility and a form of independence, it also presents hurdles concerning exploitation and increased competition, indicative of a more ruthless and carnal side of human nature.

Additionally, the lack of state intervention can mean compromising quality of life for the gig economy workforce. Ethical conscientiousness should be at the forefront of this change, as career flexibility shouldn’t have to come at the price of financial insecurity. 

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