Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An open letter from the 'Gig Economy'

"What am I taking home today, $50 or $65?"
As a musician, I know what it’s like to land a gig. I also know what most gigs pay, which is why when I hear about the “gig economy” I feel no small amount of trepidation.

If this is the first time you’ve seen the term, rest assured that it won’t be the last. Go ahead and Google it. In the gig economy, your time is your own.

Remember the days when people found jobs that paid a fixed salary every month, allowed them to take paid holidays and formed the basis for planning a stable future?

How quaint! How 20th century!

My late father worked for the state of Delaware as a social studies teacher from 1956 to 1988. My late father-in-law worked for Westinghouse from 1948 to 1990. Both enjoyed working for employers that valued them, paid them steady if not lavish wages, offered solid retirement programs and medical benefits that would keep them from the poorhouse if they or members of their families got hurt or sick. Between the two of them, they put seven kids through college. My dad thought it would be good for me to take out a student loan my senior year. It would teach me responsibility and help me build credit. It was for $1,000.

I entered the work force in January 1979 with a baby boomer set of assumptions, i.e. that my career would follow a trajectory similar to my father’s. Instead of teaching, I chose newspapers. I liked to write, and what could be more solid than the newspaper industry?

Today, I have a gig writing my blog, BizMojo Idaho. I have a gig as a freelance writer. I have a gig as a substitute teacher. I peddle my book, “Legendary Locals of Idaho Falls.” I dabble in guitar lessons and play in a band called Happyville.

There are some real advantages to the gig economy. I get to work when I want and I don’t have to deal with a boss I never can seem to please for more than a couple of days in a row.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing,” I told a friend last spring. I love the connection with the community that my writing affords me. I enjoy getting to know young people through substitute teaching, a job I would recommend to anyone who wants a better understanding of the challenges that teachers face (especially Idaho state legislators, who ought to be required to do it for a week before they vote on any education bills.)

Last of all there’s music. Playing in my band I’m living the dream I had as a kid. My mom and dad told me I’d never make a living at it. But it’s part of my living now. We actually made a four-song CD three years ago and it's on iTunes. The only money I have seen is the cash people have handed me for copies I have burned on my computer. The iTunes money, negligible as I'm sure it is, might as well be with old, dead Steve Jobs.

And that's the gig economy for you -- a little bit here and a little bit there, but not a lot from any one source. After I tell people how much I’m enjoying myself, I add, “I’m lucky to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Are we returning to the economy like the one Adam Smith described more than 200 years ago in his book An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations? Smith wrote about a genuine market economy of individuals engaging in commerce with one another. Plenty of Americans swear by it, especially in this neck of the woods.

The thing is, the ink was hardly dry on Smith’s pages before mass production and distribution gave us modern corporations. The tradesmen of Smith’s day and age gave way to the salaried employees of the 20th century.

Ah, but we’ve been told corporations are people, too, haven’t we?

On a good day, being your own boss is empowering. You can achieve a work-life balance that allows you to take your kids to soccer practice or piano lessons without having to apologize to a scowling overseer.

On the other hand, there’s something reassuring about a steady paycheck, fixed work hours and company-provided benefits. It’s harder to plan your life long term when you don’t know how much money you’re going to be making next year.

Which reminds me. I’ve got to tell YourHealthIdaho how much I anticipate making in 2016. I’ll do it right after I tune my guitar. And bill my BizMojo advertisers. And check SubFinder to see if there’s a teaching job open.