Preparing for the Gig Economy

The ‘Gig Economy’ goes by many names: ‘on demand,’ ‘peer to peer,’ or ‘platform’ economy. No matter what it might be called, the Gig Economy concept hearkens back to the publication of Charles Reich’s Greening of America in 1970.

Greening traced the evolution of ‘a world view’ from Consciousness I, an outlook of small business people, local farmers and self-directed workers of the 19th century to Consciousness II, the outlook of systems, hierarchies, and corporations, to now Consciousness III, direct action, community power and self-definition.  

The founder of Happy Host, Blake Hinckley, is an example of a millennial in Consciousness III. Happy Host is a management company handling logistics for those posting on Airbnb: bookings, cleanings, supplies…Hinckley is 29, studied English and economics at Middlebury. Two thirds of the Millennials aspire to starting their own business: Hinckley is one of the lucky ones.

While the Gig Economy might supply a romanticized image of a worker in action striving for the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy, such a path is hardly easy. Rather it is fraught with uncertainly, hard knocks, and a lot of sacrifice and labor that might, or might not, return a profit.

It’s a gamble joining the Gig Economy, but one that 43% of the US workforce, around 53 million people, will be engaged in by 2020.

To prepare for the Gig Economy one will need to manage time well, learn new skills quickly, thirst for knowledge, think creatively, and know how to negotiate with a range of people.     

Gig workers also need to understand the workings of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to properly sense how to exploit their capabilities instead of being exploited by them. While this high level of technical skill will be more in demand as systems become ever more complex and interrelated, a high literacy level is also essential as communicating well with all sorts of people about everything from sports medicine to logistics and beyond will be the norm.

As Steve Jobs stated in 2011: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

The happy heart within the Gig Economy will require that education become ever more important and access to it more available and flexible than ever.   Currently such MOOC (massive open online course) providers as EdX and Coursera offer a full array of courses for just about any gig. Interestingly, Coursera’s most popular course is ‘Learning How to Learn.’  

Higher Education needs to be revolutionized and focused on the career development of its undergraduates. Experiential learning, not subject matter, is already beginning to organize certain campus learning. Iovine and Young Academy at USC offers a curriculum for innovators that is completely interdisciplinary combining art, technology, and business to provide services and products. 

In the Gig Economy there is little clarity, so setting direction, retaining flexibility and sensing opportunities will require a strong intellectual foundation. T curriculums, requiring deep knowledge in a specialized concentration, such as computer science, along with a very demanding core curriculum spanning literature, sciences, math, history, languages, should be offered and mastered. 

Students will also need to develop perseverance, concentration, leadership, teamwork, self-reliance and courage. 

Undergraduates additionally must integrate internships with research and classroom efforts. Many students are deficient in transferring competencies between school and work. That needs to become automatic. The ability to transfer knowledge between classroom and workplace is what gets graduates hired and solid gigs started. 

In a lot of respects preparing for the Gig Economy is a lot like preparing for war. In essence, it boils down to survival.  It is a game of developing your capabilities while tracking what intelligent machines might add to your mix. The requirement is an aware and well-trained mind, without which one’s gig might soon be up.