We’ve all seen it growing, used it, and may even have found ourselves offering our own labor and services as part of it.
The Gig Economy.
Whether it was the ubiquitous proliferation of online service platforms, the lower transaction costs, the tailored nature of getting specifically what we’re looking for when we need it, or simply the evaporation of more traditional alternatives, the rapid growth of the independent worker industry continues to challenge and transform much of how we get things done and our ideas of what makes our work meaningful.
The independent worker economy provides temporary “Gig” services on demand through quickly evolving digital platforms. This has enabled the recent and massive shift in the modern US workforce.
A 2016 McKinsey study reported that 10-15 percent of the US workforce (as many as 68 million people) received their primary income through independent work and 30 percent were involved in at least some form of independent work. Forbes cites a 2018 Gallup Poll stating that 29 percent now receive their primary income and 36 percent their partial income through independent work.
Even though most millennials admire and desire the entrepreneurial autonomy and creative nature of independent work, this growth is from many contributors including, as McKinsey states, “free agents, who actively choose independent work and derive their primary income from it; casual earners, who use independent work for supplemental income and do so by choice; reluctants, who make their primary living from independent work but would prefer traditional jobs; and the financially strapped, who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.”
This type of work can be great, inspiring, overwhelming, disrupting, and frustrating all at the same time, depending on your circumstance. It also begs the question for faithful Christians on how the benefits can be weighed over concerns of destructive impact to flourishing in God’s economy.
God loves work (Gen. 2:5, 15). All types of work (Col. 3:23). Therefore the creative and independent agency of people wanting to offer services and products at better efficiencies and with more tailored meeting of needs is a good thing both for the worker and consumer.
The lowering of transaction costs through online platforms and the lower entry costs to the entrepreneur, not to mention the lure of substantial work-style flexibility, are all good incentives for an alternate mode of work.
We demonstrate our image-bearing nature of God’s character better when productive creativity (Gen. 1:26-27) intersects with service for the common good of the world and our neighbors (Matt. 22:39).
For the free agent who actively chooses this type of work, this is a significant benefit, and job satisfaction rating scores well exceed that of workers in more traditional jobs.
Having control over the nature of the product, the type of service, the social good provided by the business, and the method and care given to customers, co-workers, suppliers, and all the other stakeholders, are compelling reasons for young professionals to pursue independent work over traditional employment.
Also, the latest digital online platforms provide low-cost quick onramps to new starts as well as fast feedback systems to produce a sense of quality and reliability from the provider.
While the vast array of services at reduced transaction costs draw both consumers and companies to jump at the chance for overall less expensive services and infrastructure, there are hidden costs to this transition often missed by the uniformed. The foremost issues those in the Gig environment experience include the lack of economic and emotional stability and the inherent isolation from community.
Loss of Stability
Independence from traditional companies and business models easily severs longer-term relationships and contractual loyalties.
The ups and downs in a more entrepreneurial and autonomous job, without the deep pocket resources of large institutions, happen with greater speed and impact. New competitive entries to the market, changes in the overall economy, and rapidly changing and disruptive technologies all force dramatic adjustments and agile responses from the Gig worker.
Additionally, the lack of benefits, such as healthcare, insurance, profit sharing, and other employee protections provided by traditional businesses, are often underestimated and must also be accounted for by independent workers. These are often least considered by the younger generation that needs or is incentivized by these benefits the least.
But after becoming more established with other obligations such as growing families, loan payments, and health needs, they quickly want to expand their agile independent businesses into more conventional and sustainable models or opt out altogether to move over into the more traditional workforce.
The discipline required to sustain one’s income and attend to evolving needs demands a resilience and sense of perspective on life’s priorities that can be difficult to cultivate.
Christians desire to take care of their families (1 Timothy 5:8), give generously (1 Timothy 6:18), and provide products and services that care for the person—be they employees, clients, suppliers, or other stakeholders— as an expression of loving their neighbors (Lev. 19:18).
Balancing all this in a dynamic and vulnerable environment typical of many independent jobs creates additional stress and challenge to the worker, especially for the long-term.
The other challenge often associated with independent work is that of isolation.
We were created for community (Gen. 2:18). Working from a home office or coffee shop filled with mostly strangers, eliminating the rhythms of daily interactions in a physical place with co-workers, and not forming a supportive group of colleagues with a common language and understanding of what you are experiencing on a daily basis, can lead to a sense of disconnectedness and disorientation.
At its worst, depression as well as a loss of accountability and self-care take over in the autonomous world of independent work.
A call for attentiveness to the characteristics that compensate for the vulnerabilities of independent work and allow those to thrive in these environments is needed. A 2018 Harvard Business Review suggested independent workers do better when they cultivate elements of place, routines, purpose, and people.
This should sound familiar to those of faith as biblical wisdom regularly calls them to gather in homes and worship settings (place), to participate in regular rhythms or liturgies of devotion and worship (routines), to serve God’s desires for redemption and restoration of his world (purpose), and be a community dedicated to meet each other’s needs and loving of our neighbors out in the world (people).
Though these themes of biblical wisdom are often taught in church, they are rarely applied to equip us for the actual work we do in the world.
There is a growing need for believers to be nurtured in the practical theology and practices of daily work in whatever environment we find ourselves.
Many practical and creative solutions are being implemented and explored to address the growing needs of the independent workforce, such as innovative shared work-spaces, support networks, training services, and even new labor rights organizations.
Christians must engage these areas with interest and seek to influence them towards God-honoring goals.
So let’s celebrate and encourage those gifted and called to successfully navigate these exciting and challenging new work opportunities so they can bring foretastes of God’s coming Kingdom through their labors.
Steve Lindsey is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. As an engineer at Boeing for nearly 40 years, he often labored to see how his work served God’s greater purpose for the world. He and his wife Margaret established the CFWLA in 2017 to help people reframe vocation and understand how all work, no matter the industry, has meaning and purpose.