The Doublespeak of the Gig Economy

Words such as “job,” “employment,” and “work” fail to capture what is happening in today’s labor market.

Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Over the past 50 years, the main source of employment in the United States has shifted from the manual to the mental—from doing things with one’s hands to delivering a service or a feeling. As Enrico Moretti points out in his 2013 book The New Geography of Jobs, any given American is now statistically more likely to work in a restaurant than a factory. Not all mental work is equal, though: The divide between hospitality and knowledge work defines the new economy. Together, these two forces are proving that the phrases the past century has left us with—“gig,” “work,” “job”—are obsolete and inadequate.

Today’s knowledge economy is defined by a duplicitous charm in its categorical refusal to see work as labor. Desk workers are everywhere encouraged to “love what you do”: to embody their company’s values, identify with its brand, and then celebrate its accomplishments through internal and external marketing. For these creative workers, it is a badge of honor to never be off the clock. As they go about converting their own creative passions into making a living, these professionals are offered a spread of services, such as Evernote or space in a WeWork site, that are designed with them in mind. From Uber to Munchery, Fancy Hands to TaskRabbit, the generation that missed out on secretaries now has a surfeit of support staff at hand. To be conscious of time passing on the job is a sign that one has yet to learn the art of delegating mundane trivia to others.

Which leads us to the hospitality workers, the flipside of creative labor. These are the cleaners, cooks, and chauffeurs that some would see as the glorious vanguard of American entrepreneurialism. They are employed thanks to young, smartphone-clutching businessmen who have built a distributed-services sector that answers the genuine need for work at a time when jobs are on the decline.

This is where the distinction between work and a job really matters: In the wake of the financial crisis, the former is being persistently separated from the benefits that once came with the latter. On one hand, a service such as Uber liberates its workers from any single employer. But that liberation at the same time frees up Uber from the traditional responsibilities of being an employer. It is ingenious to make employment less predictable, and thus less costly, in the name of independence and choice.

Often, the relationship between knowledge workers and the service industry that has swelled to accommodate them is mediated by the tapping of a smartphone screen. However, the two worlds clashed recently when WeWork effectively laid off most of its office cleaners—subcontractors, of course—after they tried to unionize and seek higher wages. Forced to acknowledge the needs of service workers, they demurred, instead asserting their right to outsource crucial aspects of their business. Even the most established and powerful enterprises around the world rely on contingent labor today, not just startups.

When non-standard employment is becoming standard, our language for labor rights has to change—“on-demand economy” and “gig economy” are a start, but still insufficient. They do not fully capture the divides that define the new modes of labor: between those who design an app and those who physically provide the service it sells; between those who assemble devices and those who profit from their use; between those who offer the infrastructure for labor but no stability or benefits to accompany it.