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The Rise Of The Gig Worker In The Sharing Economy

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I’ve ridden in the backseat of many Uber drivers’ cars. Sometimes we exchange lively banter, other times we sit silently as I check email on my phone. There is not one driver that stands out, but rather a composite driver that I feel I’ve met a hundred times.

When in the midst of friendly banter, I’ll inquire about the driver’s day job — does he have one? Does he enjoy driving full time? The driver shares a familiar story: He is driving not to earn extra money, but to earn a living. Not long ago, he graduated with a business degree but has yet to land a full-time job. He’s not worried, though; he’s making pretty good money in the meantime.

While the driver I’m describing may not be the only type who takes on gigs like Uber, he represents an increasing population. More and more he is what the new American worker looks like: young, educated and working gigs, not starting careers.

We’ve Got A Conundrum On Our Hands

On one hand, we have more college-educated people who presumably want jobs, like our composite Uber driver. According to education statistics put out by the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment in “degree-granting institutions” was projected to increase by 15 percent between 2004 and 2015, and has been steadily increasing for more than two decades; total enrollment between 1990 and 2004 has increased by 25 percent.

But on the other hand, we have fewer degree-relevant jobs to sustain them. Lawyers, for example, exceed law jobs two to one. While this may point to a greater skills-gap issue, until people choose to educate themselves with the skills the economy needs, we’ll continue to see this supply/demand power struggle.

The Rise Of The Well-Educated, Under-Skilled Knowledge Worker

Twenty-five years ago, having a college degree was a good bet — and investment — for starting a career. Graduating with a degree solidified your entrance in the world of knowledge work; that is, the world of using your brain, not your brawn, to make a living.

Gigs don’t equal careers, and a lack of focus around career development is dangerous for our economy.

Since Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge work” in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow, the shift from work as defined by the physical to work as defined by the philosophical or mental has been in full effect. Anyone who works at the planning, compiling, researching, analyzing, organizing, storing, programming, marketing, et cetera of information is a knowledge worker. Which is to say, most of us holding or seeking a post-secondary degree. And a job.

But do more degrees equal more skills?

Not necessarily. Skills — like proficiency using a particular content management system, marketing automation platform or programming language — are usually acquired and honed on the job, not taught in the classroom. According to research by Dr. Alicia Sasser Modestino, employee skill requirements for both education and experience rose during the recent recession and subsequent recovery.

What does this mean for workers?

Shifts in skill requirements most impact entry-level workers (those “more” educated and less skilled). Although they’ve got a degree, they lack experience and real-world, on-the-job skills. This makes it difficult to catch a break.

The Sharing Economy Also Rises

In the sharing economy, some say there are no employees, which is great for companies but terrible for workers. Others (like Uber) say we’re leveraging technology to empower individuals to work flexibly and companies to more efficiently share or provide their good and services. Regardless of your stance on the sharing economy, we’ve arrived at it. And now we’re standing at an intersection where over-educated, under-experienced knowledge workers are meeting an influx of task-based gigs.

It seems today’s oversupply of knowledge workers only has one interim career option: become a gig worker.

The Automation Of Busy Work

Two years back, McKinsey Global Institute put out a report on disruptive technologies, one of which was the automation of knowledge work. McKinsey defines knowledge-work automation as “the use of computers to perform tasks that rely upon complex analysis, subtle judgments, and creative problem solving.” In other words, when machines do what humans once did. Think Siri.

Knowledge-work automation may be the future, but what’s more presently working its way to the forefront is the automation of busy work. So what happens when the over-educated, under-skilled knowledge worker enters the sharing economy? They give us a lift to the airport or deliver dog food on demand.

At least until driving is automated.

Are The Gigs Alright?

Peter Drucker, father of the term “knowledge work,” feared for a group he called “knowledge-worker cousins” — the service workers. “Anyone can acquire the ‘means of production,’ i.e., the knowledge required for the job, but not everyone can win,” Drucker wrote.

If gig workers are the new service workers, are they the next subset of workers to not win? (And does this make them the knowledge worker’s red-headed step-sibling?) But furthermore, should we, too, be afraid?

The bottom line is, we’re at a tipping point. The current employment situation cannot continue as it has in the past. Gigs don’t equal careers, and a lack of focus around career development is dangerous for our economy, not to mention individual gig workers’ stability and satisfaction.

So what will become of the growing gig worker population?

While we’re not in control of individuals’ career, job or gig choices, maybe it’s time we focused on more real-world specialization at universities or pushed for more trade-school adoption. Or perhaps the public sector should (finally) focus on improving its tech functions, like security and coding, thus creating more jobs for our ample supply of tech-focused knowledge workers. We might also provide supplemental training in addition to higher education.

And finally, in light of California’s recent ruling that Uber drivers are in fact employees, not contractors, other gig-producing companies like TaskRabbit, Lyft, Homejoy and others might become regulated to act more like actual employers, helping at the very least to turn the gig into a job.