The pros and cons of the gig economy

By Heather Cameron

The ‘gig economy’, also described as the ‘sharing economy’, ‘collaborative economy’ or ‘on-demand economy’, has grown rapidly in the UK, a trend that is predicted to continue amid post-Brexit uncertainty.

A new study from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that work in the gig economy is even more widespread than official data suggest, with 20-30% of people in the US and UK working independently. And while the report suggests the majority of these workers are participating in the gig economy by choice, a sizable minority are there reluctantly.

So what exactly is the gig economy and what are its benefits and drawbacks?

What is the gig economy?

The gig economy comprises enterprises such as Uber, the driver hire app, Airbnb, the accommodation-sharing platform, and Deliveroo, the online food delivery company. These enterprises enable people to use digital platforms to buy services from, and sell services to, each other.

A recent PwC study identified five key sectors within the gig economy:

  • peer-to-peer accommodation
  • peer-to-peer transportation
  • on-demand household services
  • on-demand professional services
  • collaborative finance

People that work in the gig economy, as described in the McKinsey report, are independent workers, rather than employees. Three key features of these workers have been identified:

  • a high degree of autonomy
  • payment by task, assignment, or sales
  • short-term relationship between the worker and the customer

Growth

The UK has seen higher growth in the gig economy than the rest of Europe, partly due to the recent establishment of London as a global financial technology (FinTech) hub. Transactions reached £7.4bn in 2015, almost double the previous year.

The number of jobs in the online gig economy advertised by UK employers increased by 14% between May and September, according to the Online Labour Index. This is around double the 7.5% rise elsewhere in Europe, and 6% in the US.

The McKinsey research estimates that there are up to 162 million independent workers in the US and Europe combined. The number of people classified as self-employed in the UK has grown by 47% since 2000, while the number of employed has risen by just 13% over the same period.

Pros

Supporters of the gig economy argue that it enables more people to participate in the labour market by providing flexible working, provides opportunities for the unemployed and could increase productivity.

Indeed, flexible working has proven very popular among the working population as more seek to achieve the perfect work-life balance. Those surveyed for the McKinsey report who chose independent work, reported greater satisfaction with their lives than traditional workers. They were more engaged in their work, and relished the chance to be their own boss and have more control over their hours. Even those working independently out of necessity reported being happier with the flexibility and content of the work they do, although they were less satisfied with their level of income and income security.

Both consumers and organisations can benefit through greater availability and accessibility of services and improved matching that better fulfils their needs.

And there is also the benefit of minimal cost. Digital business models have lower transaction costs for consumers, and organisations can keep costs down by using independent service providers only when they need them.

Nevertheless, challenges exist.

Cons

While there are more people in work than ever before, due in large part to the increase in self-employment, and despite the high levels of satisfaction among independent workers overall, there are concerns over job insecurity and low income.

Those working in the gig economy do not enjoy the same rights and protections as employed workers, such as health benefits, overtime pay and sick leave pay.

The TUC has highlighted that the increase in self-employment has not been driven by a boom in entrepreneurship but, instead, workers are increasingly forced by employers to accept precarious employment with low pay.

Deliveroo has recently come under fire from workers over their employment practices in relation to the minimum wage. And Uber is involved in an employment tribunal where drivers have contested their status as self-employed, suggesting they should be entitled to a range of benefits such as pension contributions as well as holiday and sick pay.

In a bid to address concerns about the lack of rights held by people working in the gig economy, Theresa May has recently appointed a former adviser of Tony Blair to head a review into employment rights across the new economy.

But this will be no easy feat, as the rapid development of the gig economy poses significant challenges for policy makers and regulators to keep up.

Final thoughts

As the McKinsey report argues, “expanding economic opportunities and income security policies for this group should be a priority”. Hopefully the review of employment rights will mark the first step in the right direction.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on ‘the self-employment boom.

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