The “gig economy” isn’t just a buzzword. It’s an accurate description of the state of the modern market; though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has admitted difficulty in counting the exact number of independent contractors and contingent workers, Intuit estimates that “gig” workers represent 34 percent of the workforce, and will grow to be 43 percent by 2020.
In case you aren’t familiar, the gig economy is a term that refers to the increased tendency for businesses to hire independent contractors and short-term workers, and the increased availability of workers for these short-term arrangements. Due in part to the popularity of the internet (and with it, the capability for remote work) and in part due to the nature of new apps like Uber and Airbnb (which give more power to independent contractors, and open up new opportunities for gig-based work), the gig economy has flourished in recent years.
But for millennials, who are either just beginning their careers or are reaching the end of the first phase of their careers, the gig economy is a mixed bag; it represents massive potential, but at the same time, fewer and more difficult opportunities.
The Economic Downturn
A massive economic recession hit in 2008, when millennials were still in college or entering the workforce for the first time. This had a profound effect on the development of millennials’ careers; for millennials who found a secure career path before the recession developed, the economic downturn wasn’t a massive challenge, but for millennials trying to find work after companies instituted hiring freezes and lowered workers’ salaries, the job market was in a drought. This effect created a massive division between workers under 30, many of whom are doing well in established careers, and many of whom are unemployed.
For the unemployed, the gig economy represents both opportunity and challenge. Because lots of small, part-time jobs are available, even non-full-time employed workers can find gigs to help make ends meet. However, because gigs and contracts are more affordable for employers, it’s also harder to find the full-time jobs they crave—despite loving the internet and being open to nontraditional career opportunities, millennials are still traditionally minded, with 91 percent wanting full-time work.
Student debt is another factor coloring millennials’ experiences with the gig economy. The average college graduate of 2003 left school with $18,271 of debt to pay back, while the average graduate of 2016 left with $37,172. That’s a hefty price tag for someone entering a floundering job market.
With fewer full-time opportunities, many young workers have resorted to finding gig work to make ends meet—and those small, part-time jobs are oftentimes insufficient to provide anything beyond basic needs and student debt payments. For those fortunate or vigilant enough to get more part-time work, the income is often inconsistent, making it harder to plan for the future.
Experience and Opportunities
Millennials get a bad reputation for job hopping excessively, willing to abandon one opportunity for another at a moment’s notice—but that’s only partially true. It’s undeniable that today’s millennials stay in their jobs for less time, on average, than their older generational counterparts, but Pew Research found that this is largely attributable to age; that is to say, millennials aren’t job hopping any more than generation X did when they were the same age.
Young people crave new experiences and new opportunities, especially when they aren’t sure what they want to do. The gig economy gives them that opportunity without demanding excessive sacrifices or risks; in an economy that functions largely on part-time jobs and temporary gigs, turnover is expected, and loyalty isn’t a guarantee.
Values and Independence
Millennials are known for desiring independence in the workplace, opting for flexible hours and remote work opportunities whenever possible. They also want to work for employers whose values align closely with their own, choosing values over pay as a top priority when choosing a new job.
Becoming independent contractors in a gig economy gives them more control over the work they do, and over their careers overall, helping them build career independence, and simultaneously allows them to choose business partners, clients, and vendors whose values agree with their own. Working for someone else can’t possibly match that level of autonomy.
It remains to be seen whether the gig economy is a good thing or a bad thing for economic development overall, but for millennials, it’s certainly both. For cash-strapped young workers striving to find a good full-time job, the gig economy can be frustrating, but for more established millennials, or those who want a diversity of experiences, the gig economy is the perfect opportunity to achieve those goals.