A quick glance at the workforce of 2020 doesn’t immediately present itself as all that different from the workforce of the year 2000.
The major professions remain the same — doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants, stock brokers, academics, teachers, consultants, software programmers, etc. The trades are mostly familiar — electrical, carpentry, plumbing, welding, etc. There are still retail clerks and waiters; tailors and dry cleaners; drivers and warehouse workers — just as there were when the 21st century got off the ground.
But quick glances can be deceiving, and in the case of the 21st century, it is not only fair to say we aren’t looking at the same workforce as 20 years ago, but also, we aren’t even laboring in the same workforce of a decade ago.
That’s because a decade ago, the gig economy was still in its nascent stages. Today, it’s a bona fide influence unto itself in the labor force. According to the latest edition of the Gig Economy Tracker, PYMNTS found that 42 percent of U.S. workers will engage in some form of freelance work this year, 36 percent have participated in the gig economy and, by the end of this year, there will be an estimated 42 million workers active in the U.S. gig economy.
Freelance work is not the invention of the last decade, of course; that is a longstanding extant part of the U.S. workforce. But what has changed, enabled by the advent of mobile, is the emergence of various centralized platforms that offer gig workers an easy access point to locate — and be paid for — gig jobs as they choose to take them. Uber, Lyft, Fiverr, Airbnb, Postmates were the early names in the game, all founded between 2009 and 2011. By the mid-2010s it felt as if an “Uber of” every imaginable service was available via a mobile gig platform.
Some lasted; some did not.
Fiverr — an open gig marketplace for a whole variety of service types, from voice-over artists to translators to programmers to dog walkers — has some 300 categories of digital services and eight industry stores.
“At first, there were all kinds of things, and some of them were kind of silly — people who offered to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for $5,” Fiverr’s Global Head of Community Brent Messenger told Karen Webster in an interview in 2017. “But we also started seeing other, more skilled stuff — people who would do 100 lines of data entry, people who were offering to do voice-overs or quick graphic designs — all for $5 to get themselves and their brands established online.”
And although the Fiverr name stuck around, the $5 jobs from which it was derived have long since given way to more normalized pricing among professionals using the platform such that $10,000 programming gigs are now more likely to be transacted on the site than $5 gigs.
Closing in on its 10th anniversary, Fiverr recently announced that over $1 billion has been earned by its global community of gig workers in the decade the company has been in operation.
The goal for platforms like Fiverr, Micha Kaufman, founder and CEO, noted in a conversation with Karen Webster last year shortly after its acquisition of ClearVoice, is to change the contours not just of working, but of the labor market itself — and how skilled workers can best position themselves in it. There is no typical supplier in the gig economy, he noted, because customer need is so varied.
“It’s a need basis, not a use case,” he said.
It’s also an expanding use case, as more and more consumers are dipping their toes into the gig economy.
The interesting question for the next decade is how, as the gig economy grows, it will continue to compete with and innovate against the world of wage work — and perhaps change it in the process.
The advent of instant payments among gig workers is a good early indicator of this. Uber and Lyft have both notably launched instant payout for disbursement in the last few years, and other platforms are conforming, quite simply, because they have to. A gig platform that allows a worker to be paid out instantly is a more attractive prospect for a worker than one that doesn’t, Ingo Money CEO Drew Edwards noted.
But more broadly, he said, the allure of being paid instantly for work one has already done is appealing to any worker — and something nine-to-fives are going to have to take into consideration for the future, Edwards said, lest they want to risk losing their workforce en masse to the gig economy.
“I think we are heading to a place where you may work every day at a nine-to-five, but your payroll will be on demand to the extent you have earned it thus far,” he said.
It’s a bold prediction, and it would certainly be a big change from the norm, but maybe not for so much longer. Walmart is now over a year into a partnership with Even, a FinTech startup that allows workers at its partner firms to claim a section of their earned wages before payday. Walmart is the largest private employer of nine-to-five workers in the U.S., and it is apparently adjusting its payroll to look a bit more like that of the gig economy.
It will be interesting to watch the next decade — and how many employers decide it’s time to follow suit.