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As part of our series on Employee Experience we explore the myths and truth of the gig economy.

This article is part of a series on Employee Experience.

Uncomfortable with many of the assumptions we hear about employees, we interviewed a mix of young frontline and knowledge workers, with degrees and without, and from a wide range of backgrounds. We sought to understand how they feel about work, where the differences lie and whether anything we think we know about them is true.

The promise of the gig economy is simple: be your own boss, work flexibly and enjoy the freedom to earn as much or as little as you want. This promise is romantic, dangerous and pervasive. In the decade following the financial crisis the gig economy has boomed. While the companies that have driven that boom proudly advertise the flexibility of precarious work, a poll by Randstad found that 70% of gig workers prefer the security of a permanent job over the flexibility of gig economy work.

Statistics around the gig economy can be misleading. For me, there is a huge difference between the low-skilled worker on a zero-hours contract and a high-skilled worker who chooses to provide their services as a freelancer. Yet most discussions of the gig economy lump them together. For many, participating in the gig economy is necessitated through a lack of other options or as a way to top up an inadequate income. In a US survey, 36% of workers had taken a second job to save for a house deposit.

We spoke to young workers who were on zero-hours contracts. For those we spoke to, these ‘gig economy’ jobs were last resorts they were forced to take due to lack of other available options. “It can be annoying if you don’t have work for the following week. I’d like a job where I’m guaranteed work every week,” a twenty-three-year-old told us. He was sent an email each week with the shifts he could choose to work. Some weeks no shifts were offered.

They also felt they were treated unfairly and harshly, treatment that is endemic across the gig economy. “If you don’t show up three times you get blacklisted,” one twenty-seven-year-old told us. “Even if you were sick and you gave them several hours notice.”

Tech platforms have propped up their rapid expansion on the backs of gig economy drivers, bike couriers and odd jobbers. Multinationals have stripped out costs by transferring the price of employment from their own balance sheets to the gig workers. Of the well documented employee needs, the gig economy strips away all but flexibility. For those employees there is little progression to be had, it is difficult to take out a mortgage against a zero-hours contract or to save for a deposit in weeks when there is no work, and falling ill becomes an existential crisis. Far from liberating workers from the slavery of their rigid jobs, the gig economy has chained a generation of low-skilled workers to their station.

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