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Study dissects the hype around the upsides of the 'gig economy'

Study dissects the hype around the upsides of the 'gig economy'

University of Auckland research reveals how the ‘gig track’ can lead to 'permanently temporary’ work

Policy makers must think about how the promise of choice and flexibility become a reality for workers, and that nonstandard work does not become ‘a route to nowhere’

Elizabeth George, University of Auckland

Amidst all the hype about the choice and flexibility of the ‘gig economy’, new research from the University of Auckland suggests most people prefer a regular nine-to-five-style job.

Moreover, when people start working in so-called gig jobs, their chances of switching to a conventional job later are surprisingly low.

Prof Elizabeth George and her collaborators at the University of Auckland studied data from a long-range French survey that followed the work lives of 10,000 young people who finished their education in 1998.

“We wanted to know if the gig economy delivered on its promise of choice and flexibility for workers,” says George, a professor at the Graduate School of Management in the Business School at the University of Auckland.

“Do individuals want ‘nonstandard’ gig-style jobs? And can they easily switch between standard and nonstandard jobs? We were also curious to see if educational levels shaped preferences and outcomes.”

She says ‘nonstandard jobs’ are any paid work that do not involve a full-time ‘permanent’ employment contract. These include casual, contract, temporary, or part-time jobs.

“We found that people who started out in non-standard work arrangement had a low likelihood of changing to standard job. People who started in standard employment were more likely to be in this kind of job at any given point months or years later,” she says.

The difference was more dramatic for people with high and low levels of education compared to medium levels.

For example, she says, highly educated people who had a standard job at one point in time were nearly eight times more likely to also have a standard job at a later point than those who had had a nonstandard job.

For people with low levels of education, those who had nonstandard employment at a given time were nearly three times more likely to have nonstandard work at a later time compared to those who had had a standard job.

“In other words, the stickiness of employment status was higher for high and low education levels," says George.

She says possible reasons for this have to do with the investment businesses make in permanent staff, but not temporary or casual staff.

“When you’re in a temporary job, the organisation has very little incentive to invest in you. You probably don’t get the same training or opportunities for career development as you would in a permanent role, which means you come out of that job with fewer new skills.

“You may well also miss out on mentoring and professional networking via workmates. Also, having lots of nonstandard jobs on your CV is still perceived by some employers as signalling a lack of commitment.”

Asked for key takeaways from this study, George says people, including young school leavers and graduates, appear to prefer some certainty in their jobs. They reported a preference for standard work arrangements.

If you are in a nonstandard job, and want to move into a standard one, think about getting the skills and experience that would increase your odds of getting the kind of job you want

Elizabeth George, University of Auckland

So when reviewing CVs of potential employees, organisations should explore why the candidates have a particular pattern of employment, especially if they have a string of nonstandard jobs, she says.

“Did they prefer nonstandard jobs at some point in their lives, what skills did they develop in those jobs?”

“This can help organisations identify potentially excellent employees who might otherwise have been overlooked because of their track record consisting mainly of nonstandard jobs,” she says.

For young people just entering the workforce, she says the findings suggest that early choices of work arrangements might “stick”.

“The odds of moving between standard and nonstandard jobs quite fluidly are not high. But again, they are also not zero. So if you are in a nonstandard job, and want to move into a standard one, think about getting the skills and experience that would increase your odds of getting the kind of job you want,” she advises.

“They should look for jobs that enable them to retain their employability – both in terms of retaining their motivation to work and also maintaining and enhancing their skills.”

Job satisfaction

The researchers also found that compared to those in nonstandard jobs, people in standard employment were more satisfied with their pay, reported a greater sense of professional accomplishment, and had greater optimism about the future.

They were also less likely to be searching for a new job. People with high and low levels of education in standard jobs were even more optimistic than those with medium levels, while people with low education levels in standard jobs were least likely to be job-hunting.

George posits that people with low education levels in permanent work are happier because their expectations of getting a regular job at all are lower.

“So it’s not that those with medium education levels are unhappy, but by comparison those with lower levels are even happier.

“For a long time there’s been this belief that people, especially young people, prefer the freedom – and lack of office politics – of nonstandard work. But our study shows that most young people – like older people – actually want regular jobs,” she says.

“Sure, a nine-to-five job in the office or factory can feel boring and stifling. But it can also give you security, financial stability, a sense of meaning and identity, a social network, and all those skill development advantages missing from many nonstandard jobs.”

She says the challenge for companies and policymakers is to ensure that the benefits of flexibility are shared between organisations and workers.

She notes how previous research has shown that companies benefited from nonstandard work arrangements, for example via lower wage bills, just-in-time workers, but not so much the workers themselves.

“As technology and international trade makes new forms of work possible, it is important that policy makers think about how the promise of choice and flexibility become a reality for workers, and that nonstandard work does not become a route to nowhere.”

George is now examining the French data to see if gender and social class affects job choices and outcomes.

She is also embarking on another study into the experience of social and psychological connection and isolation for people in nonstandard work.

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Share us your experiences in working in the gig economy. Do you agree with the findings of the research?
Share us your experiences in working in the gig economy. Do you agree with the findings of the research?

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