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gig economy

noun [countable]

an employment concept in which people are paid for each specific, short-term task that they do and don't have conventional contracts of employment

People who work in the gig economy have small jobs instead of – or as well as – full time jobs. Instead of a salary, workers get paid for the "gigs" they do, like a food delivery or a taxi journey.

BBC News 8th November 2016

There was a time when the only people seriously interested in 'gigs' were popular musicians, the word conjuring up images of aspiring rock bands nomadically playing their music wherever invited. In the last couple of years however, it seems that gig has a much wider remit, covering take-away deliverers, couriers and taxi drivers through to accountants, marketing consultants, software developers, or even jobbing writers like me. This is all courtesy of what's recently become known as the gig economy, a concept of rapidly increasing significance in today's world of work.

what seems to differentiate the gig economy from conventional self-employment is the smaller scale of the tasks involved

Gig economy is a term now used to describe the growing phenomenon of task-based employment. Rather than working under a contract of employment and receiving regular salaries, workers receive one-off payments for the individual tasks, aka 'gigs', they do. In essence this is just another take on working freelance, but what seems to differentiate the gig economy from conventional self-employment is the smaller scale of the tasks involved and the more casual, sporadic nature of agreeing to do them. Typically, workers in the gig economy will find jobs by plugging into websites and smartphone apps and signing up for what they want to do. For some people, this is a great way of seeking casual employment, giving flexible hours and complete control over how much they work. It's very popular therefore with students and others who want to casually support their income. But evidence suggests that there are also many people for whom the gig economy is their only route to employment, one on which they rely to eke out a living. The vulnerability of workers like these, who under such conditions have very little employment protection and no rights to a minimum wage or sick or holiday pay, is one reason the gig economy has courted controversy. For employers on the other hand, the gig economy can be very appealing, cutting down on costs such as office space, benefits and training, and only paying staff when work is available.

Whether viewed positively or negatively, it looks like a number of factors (economic and political climates, electronic communication) have conspired to change conventional patterns of employment for good, as also reflected in the emergence of concepts like zero hours contracts and the so-called sharing economy In a world where employees are increasingly being recast as temporary workers, it looks likely that the term gig economy will also stick around, and in fact the word gig is already beginning to break free in this context, with evidence of use of, for example, gig job and gig worker.

Background – gig economy

The term gig economy has been around for the last couple of years or so, one of a number of similar expressions (e.g. sharing economy, concierge economy) attempting to characterize the task-based model of employment ever more prevalent in today's labour market. The conflict between employment protection and the new opportunities unleashed by these ways of working seems likely to be an enduring debate, one which has also spawned other perspectives, e.g. sharewashing.

The word gig in its sense of 'musical performance' dates back to the 1920s, though its precise origins are unknown. Though today we associate it with pop or rock, it was originally associated with jazz musicians.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published 17th January 2017.

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