Why the 'gig economy' isn't real

Tech companies claim the gig economy is booming. Data beg to differ.

Why the 'gig economy' isn't real
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The robots are coming, but the kids are alright (and even the seniors, we’re told). Although more jobs will be automated in the coming decades, plenty of opportunities will exist for everyone. Such is the promise of this bright future sculpted by the forthcoming technological utopia. The gig economy will save us, empower us even, given that we set the rules, the hours, our participation. All we can do is thrive, right?


If only.

It begins with the numbers. Washington Post economic columnist Robert Samuelson looked at three decades of gig economy workers—broken down, more traditionally, into independent contractors, on-call workers, temp help employees, and contract workers—and found that between 1995-2017, the number of American workers falling into each category has roughly been the same. In fact, 2005 represented peak gig economy, well before the term was in widespread circulation.

The company that helped launch the gig mythos, Uber, is not nearly the stalwart it claims to be, at least for its employees. One recent study reveals that when broken down into hours, such gigs represent only .1 percent of full-time US employment. Study author Lawrence Mishel writes that while companies like Uber seem large in terms of overall participation (number of citizens), it falls way behind in economic impact.

There are a large number of people seeking to supplement their regular incomes by working in the gig economy for a short time or as very part-time workers. These “short-hour” participants do work alongside the minority of participants who rely on the gig economy work for their living—this is the basic duality of the gig economy. Nevertheless, as a share of the economy, Uber and the gig economy are rather small.

The latest statistics for average annual pay for an Uber driver is $30,000, based on anonymous self-reporting by 504 drivers. Where you live matters: in Detroit, you’re only going to earn $6.60 hour (after taxes and expenses), while in Houston you’ll clear $11. Multiply each rate by forty and see where that lands you. In many cities, Uber drivers working at full-time rates earn less than that city's minimum salary requirements.

Of course, many Uber drivers use their pay as supplemental income—one half of the gig economy, Mishel notes. They're pulling revenue from multiple sources. For some, independent contracting is freedom; for others, necessity. Yet there are other considerations, with lack of health care and 401k programs near the top of the list. Vacation time is another. You don’t work, you don’t get paid. Many issues with the gig economy are conveniently glossed over by those whose livelihood depends on you believing this structure is the next phase in modern employment.

Germany Taxi drivers protest outside the venue as the CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi speaks at the 2018 NOAH conference on June 6, 2018, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

That said, Samuelson’s column misses essential points. The forty-hour benchmark is a misnomer. In the tech age, many employees are working far longer. Gig economy workers might also underreport pay. Even the structure of larger companies has changed. In recent weeks I’ve attended a number of meetings with different businesses at WeWork; many of their employees work from home, regionally and overseas. What we call the traditional work environment is unraveling in many directions. Pretending there is one model is an outdated mode of thinking. 

I also understand the gig economy well. For fifteen years I’ve worked as an independent contractor for dozens of companies. This month I’ll receive checks from six different entities. While I appreciate certain aspects of this so-called freedom, such as predominantly working from my laptop wherever I happen to be, there are trade-offs.

For example, I had great health care until one of my main employers stopped offering it to contractors. You have to save for tax season, which is an entire discipline unto itself. There’s also constant competition. Companies don’t invest in contractors the way they do in full-time employees. Much as you'd like to believe in your reputation and skills, the realization that you’re expendable always lurks. 

Samuelson’s correct in that we’re not far off from where we were twenty years ago, even if the terms have changed. Yet the automation boom is real. Numerous positions are going to go to robots in the near future. How we look ten years from now will likely be drastically different than how we looked a decade ago. If "gig" workers don’t organize and demand better pay and treatment, this economy will be revealed for what it has turned into: the latest incarnation of indentured servitude.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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