Working a 'gig'? It's not as romantic as it seems

girl using Macbook
CC BY 2.0 Thomas Leuthard

What appears as unbridled freedom to some is more like a crummy job with no security for others. It depends on what you do.

Everyone has an opinion on what the word of the year for 2015 should be. Merriam-Webster decided on “-ism,” Dictionary.com chose “identity,” and Oxford opted, surprisingly, for the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoticon. The American Dialect Society picked “they,” used as a gender-neutral pronoun.

UC Berkeley profession Geoffrey Nunberg has an alternative suggestion. He thinks the word “gig” should be 2015’s Word of the Year, since it reflects the evolving state of employment around the world and the new economic order that has come to be. It’s an interesting and relevant suggestion for many people like myself who rely on contract-style, pay-per-piece jobs in order to keep our bank accounts afloat.

In an article written for the L.A. Times, Nunberg explains how “gig” used to have a subversive meaning, used by hippies, Beats and the likes of Jack Kerouac, to describe a job taken “to keep body and soul together while your real life was elsewhere.” But “gig” has evolved to have less of a counter-culture connotation and now refers to any job that’s not permanent – the new reality for young people these days.

“In recent decades, "gig" has become just a hip term for any temporary job or stint, with the implication you're not particularly invested in it. I think of the barista or bookstore clerk who responds to my questions with a look that says, ‘Hey man, it's a gig. I don't really DO this?’”

There’s something about the word “gig” that is jaunty, carefree, insouciant. It implies a certain freedom in one’s ability to be able to walk away unimpeded from an unfulfilling job – something that is no doubt very attractive to a generation of Millennials that tends to be leery of commitment and responsibility.

The associated buzzwords pile up: “freelance nation,” “free range humans,” “solopreneurs.” Instead of being just lawyers or photographers or writers, “we're part-time lawyers-cum-amateur photographers who write on the side.”

Analysts, such as this one on the Huffington Post, make it sound terribly exciting:

"The gig economy has gained traction, driven by mobile, on-demand platforms where workers can capitalize on their skills and create work schedules that better meet their needs, consumers enjoy greater convenience, and companies gain greater visibility and control over large distributed teams."

It all sounds wonderfully flexible and progressive, but then Nunberg points out the brutal truth – that a “gig” can only be called such by someone who has the luxury of not doing that job.

Gigs are thought of only in terms of “creative” and semi-professional jobs, not the daily, manual slog of cleaning houses, doing other people’s laundry, delivering food, giving manicures, babysitting. These are people who cannot pick up and leave as soon as the work becomes unfulfilling. Instead they push onward, knowing that their work is unfortunately temporary and could end at any point. There is no romanticism in that.

As Nunberg puts it, “The idea of a gig is alluring only if you know you can hit the road when it gets joyless. Otherwise it's just an old word for a job you can't count on having tomorrow.”

It’s some interesting food for thought at a time when the analysts of the world lead us to think that the new “gig economy” holds a beautiful future for all. In reality, it’s only for the lucky few, since there are countless people out there who would give a lot for an old-fashioned, albeit soul-deadening, permanent job.

Tags: Work

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