At least to me, MTV is still cool--and now, apparently, so are hashtags. Today's #youth (that's "hashtag youth") won't remember, but it was revolutionary when the once exclusively music-video-blasting television channel created reality TV, with the debut of The Real World in 1992. It did not end there--MTV went further to even address economic issues, with the comedy-drama, Underemployed, focused on a group of friends struggling to make strides in the working world. Similar to the show not making it past its first season, most of today's underemployed may have a limited path of opportunity.
About 53 million Americans, or 34 percent of the total workforce, are offering their services as freelancers in temporary and project-based work arrangements. On the other side of this development stands a stubbornly high "real" unemployment rate (U-6 unemployment, which includes underemployed and discouraged workers), surely highlighting the shortcomings of a central bank-induced economic recovery. Advances in technology and automation, paired with the lasting effects of the 2008/2009 Great Recession, may have altered the regular process by which employers and job seekers engage with one another. However, it may also be possible that this current shift grew out of necessity or despair.
On the positive side, the emerging so-called "gig economy" keeps creating choice and opportunity of unparalleled proportions. Not only is a less formal (or binding) work arrangement often the basis for the creative and founding force of our economy, but choice also offers price leverage for the consumer. The way services are being delivered has become all-encompassing, from renting top IT programmers and "best home servicing experts" to leasing specialists who can throw your next party. Aside from the well-known transportation application Uber, less prominent (yet highly sophisticated) options are advancing in multitude, such as 10x Management, TaskRabbit and Zaarly.
We are still left to deal with the less glamorous aspects of "gigging": The creation of the "faceless worker" who is often engaged from home offices (aka coffee shops), lacking social connectivity and, more importantly, context related to a company's mission and product. With "workplace" satisfaction (or lack thereof) taking another dimension, it also needs to be recognized that consumer benefits are not entirely captured by the "gig workforce," but more so by intermediaries. In addition, competition is stiff, with freelancers--including nearly 15 million "moonlighters" who are already employed but freelancing in their spare time--often undercutting rates.
Being overly critical, we could easily forego the entire "cool aspect" of today's sharing/gig economy and link current developments to a dismal state of affairs rather than innovation, especially given mostly unaffordable education and a shrinking set of opportunities in the labor market. With this idea in mind, current trends echo the fate of past migrant workers who gravitated toward big cities to compete for day jobs in the aftermath of the Great Depression; and, it was this very disintegration of once-established socioeconomic frameworks that ultimately helped to rebalance supply and demand in the labor market, thus restoring an ailing domestic economy. Today, we are far from such a rebalancing.
Just as the migrant workers of the 1920s and '30s were rather unwelcome, so are many "giggers." The on-demand economy is being sued left and right, mainly by traditionalists trying to preserve the status quo; this particular development, on the flip-side, is indicative that today's new economy is not only real, but that it has become a disruptive force leading change and innovation. Proof of a structural shift can be seen through the sped-up demise of big companies (as listed in the S&P 500): Whereas in 1985 the average lifespan of a large company was 61 years, these days the average duration of a listing has been reduced to a mere 18 years.
There is a need to strike a fine balance between what is a trending new form of employment and the potential continued weaknesses of an economic system. Underemployment, in this respect, is a risk as much as it is an opportunity. The notion that "if I cannot find a job, I will create it myself" is noble, but it can never release a society of its inherent obligation to create relevant opportunities, especially those that are based on affordable and relevant education. Let's aim to define the "new workers," not only through creating virtual profiles in social media "apps," but more importantly, by helping to enhance their profiles in a real life context.
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