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Beyond the Data: A Conversation with Sarah Kessler, Author of Gigged

Sarah Kessler is the deputy editor of Quartz At Work and author of Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. Her book takes an in-depth and personal look at the lives of gig workers. Below are some insights from Kessler on the experiences of these workers, and the future of work.

What is Gigged about? How did you decide to write a book on the gig economy?

When apps like Uber were just starting, I was working as a technology reporter, and what seemed like an endless number of entrepreneurs pitched me their visions for how the “gig economy” would change the world. At some point (an early point), I became much more interested in the reality of what these products meant for people finding work through them.

The book, which follows the rise of the term “gig economy,” is told through the stories of a handful of these people. I wanted to tell a human story that illustrated what endless white papers and some research has cataloged in a more academic way.

How do you define the “gig economy” in your book?

Gigged follows the rise of companies that brought the term “gig economy” into our vocabulary, which include Uber and freelance marketplaces like Upwork. But I don’t think that’s the only fair way to use the term. The distinction between precarious work that is facilitated by some type of technology and other types of precarious work is sometimes difficult to make. For instance, in my book, I wrote about a man who worked for a call center as an independent contractor. This is an arrangement that has been around for a long time, but for him it was possible because of software that managed schedules, assigned him to shifts, and allowed him to complete remote training programs. Is this independent contractor post part of the gig economy? Depends who you ask.

Having reported on the gig economy extensively, were you surprised by the results of the latest Contingent Worker Supplement from the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

Just about everybody who is interested in this topic was surprised by the results because they conflicted with most other attempts to measure this type of work. The survey also measures contingent and precarious work differently than other surveys, so perhaps we should not have been as surprised as we all were.

What were you most surprised by in writing this book?

I was surprised at how quickly popular narratives around the gig economy shifted, and how little room they left for nuance. Over the last five years or so, we’ve gone from, “the gig economy means everyone can be an entrepreneur” to “the gig economy means that everyone will work in a sweat shop” to “the gig economy is taking over the world” to “the gig economy doesn’t exist.” None of these things is true.

In speaking with gig workers as you wrote this book, what are the most common experiences/challenges facing these workers?

Even for people who liked working as freelancers or independent contractors, there was often a sense of insecurity in the background. I heard a lot of “this will work unless I want to have kids/retire/something goes wrong.” I don’t think that this is so different from the rest of the workforce. Forty percent of Americans could not handle a $400 emergency expense. The gig economy is an extreme version of a trend that is much bigger than the gig economy.

In your view, what are the most promising solutions to address these challenges?

One idea, which The New School professor Trebor Scholz has championed, is for workers to create versions of apps like Uber that they own. Technology could be used to facilitate these collectives—something akin to union hiring halls—just as easily as it can be used to facilitate an app like Uber. Portable benefits are another popular solution, though even parties who agree that they're a good idea disagree on who should facilitate and pay for them.

When thinking about solutions, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Uber didn’t create the problems that people talk about in connection with Uber. Those problems have deep roots that extend all the way to how we’ve structured our labor laws and social safety net—mainly in that we’ve attached them to employment status. Just like an app didn’t instantly create these problems, I don’t think an app or quick fix will make them go away.

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