By Ibby Caputo
Feb. 1, 2012
BOSTON — For those without jobs, the monthly unemployment numbers are just a reminder of the struggle to find work … and the fact that you are not alone. Even when the economy turns around, it will take years for jobs to return to pre-recession levels. That’s why more and more people are re-inventing their work lives in nontraditional, innovative ways.
A new model for work
Back in the day, having a job meant working for the same company for 30 years.
Now, meet Steve Macone. At 26, he’s Boston born and bred, a BU grad. Macone doesn’t have that one ideal job. Instead, he has many jobs. He's a comedian, writer and contributor to The Onion. That's enough for most people — but Macone also does landscaping, cleans basements and even sells scrap metal, as he once discussed on WGBH's "Callie Crossley Show." Tired yet? Wait, there’s more: He’s a nanny. Three days a week, Macone watches his 1-year-old nephew while his sister and her husband go to work.
"I feed him, change his diaper, which he’s due for," he said. "We go for walks. Yesterday we had a snowball fight. He’s terrible at throwing snowballs so I won."
Macone is part of a growing number of Americans cobbling together different short-term jobs — or “gigs” — to make a living. And they’re making up what’s being called the "gig economy" America’s new frontier.
Sara Horowitz is the founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, an organization that advocates for independent workers. "If you can say one thing about the gig economy, it is the wild, Wild West," she said. "It’s not regulated, it’s not understood, it is not counted, and yet it is the biggest growth part of the economy for jobs."
According to government stats, 43 million workers, or 30 percent of the American workforce, are "independent," meaning they’re temps, day laborers, part-time, self-employed or independent contractors. And that was before the recession.
The Freelancers Union has more than 150,000 members nationwide, including 2,000 in Massachusetts. Horowitz said the independent workforce is expanding quickly, and these workers face big challenges: "Their income is just so episodic that it’s really difficult to plan for the future."
Macone, the joke-cracking, article-writing, landscaping, scrap-metal-hauling nanny, agreed.
"Right now my retirement plan is hoping I become very rich," he said. "That’s the plan right now. There’s nothing. I have no 401(k)."
The challenges of walking that gig
And that’s the ever-present tension of the gig economy: Freelance work rarely comes with benefits. That's changed Macone's perspective on those benefits. "You realize how insane it is to have to get your health insurance from your job," he said. "It’s like having to get waffles from a gas station — it's like, why is that even from there?"
Macone has health insurance through Massachusetts’ health connector, Commonwealth Care. He said he has to do a lot of paperwork because his income fluctuates throughout the year and he’s required to report all changes to the state. But it’s better than not having insurance, he said, and "probably part of the reason I haven’t moved to New York sooner. "
One of the other challenges freelancers face is that unlike salaried workers, they are usually not entitled to unemployment insurance. Horowitz said this can have ripple effects on the greater economic picture.
"For the whole economy to work, when people are facing a period of unemployment, they need to be able to get paid so they can keep paying for their car insurance, or their rent or their mortgage, and what we are saying to the workers in the gig economy is: too bad," she said.
What workers and companies get from gigs
But there are also perks that come along with the gig economy, especially for businesses. Workers who don’t get benefits are less expensive, which improves the bottom line. And with new mobile applications, businesses worldwide can connect to a no-strings-attached workforce. Gigwalk is one of these applications, as a video on the company’s website explains:
Breakthroughs in mobile technology and social media have paved the way for Gigwalk, the first ever distributed mobile workforce. Talk about power in numbers, tons of smart, phone-savvy, and locally knowledgeable gigwalkers at your disposable, ready to pound the pavement whenever and wherever they’re needed.
The idea is meant to be a win-win. The gigwalker makes a quick buck by verifying a street name or photographing a menu or completing other simple tasks, while businesses get on-demand data.
Another app that auctions off gigs — to the lowest bidder — is TaskRabbit. Diane Hoen, 47, has used it to secure a variety of gigs — housecleaning, cupcake delivery, dog walking. To make it work, she said, "What I try to do is piggyback jobs, so like one is paying my gas and my time, and the rest is profit."
Hoen said she started using TaskRabbit two years ago. It wasn't necessarily her first choice for work, though.
"I normally work jobs that are commission-based and because of the economy my pay was basically almost cut in half," she said. "This fills the void of you know, the money that I’m not earning anymore."