Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

We Must Be Smarter About Work & Life

August 4th 2018

How the “Gig Economy” is Changing Our Future

The future of work is now.

For many of us, it is already here. And a big part of that “future” is the so-called “gig economy.”

For me, the “gig economy” doesn’t just refer to Uber drivers, food delivery workers, freelancers offering work through TaskRabbit, and other contingent workers.

The “gig economy” includes so much more. It covers any temporary or contract employment/assignment. The rapid growth in the “gig economy” is a key feature of the digital transformation. This isn’t just hype.

The “gig economy” is here to stay. And we all need to think about what this means for how we live and work.

This can be enormously challenging, but it can also be very attractive. “Done right,” the “gig economy” offers a degree of opportunity, freedom, and responsibility that we are all looking for in our pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness.

So, what can we do to prepare ourselves for the unique challenges of this new world?

This isn’t an easy question. There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution. But my experience may, perhaps, provide some “clues.”

What I have learned over the last few years is that if you want to be successful, you can’t set out to be a “gig economy person,” but you have to become part of it. Slowly and organically. You have to work on it and grow into it. And this is much easier said than done.

Let me share my experience.

From an Old World of “Security” to a New World of “Opportunities”

My grandfather worked at a large multinational. For the whole of his working life, he performed standardized work and followed orders from his superiors without ever questioning them. He was content.

And the reason for his happiness? My grandfather felt stable and secure. He “enjoyed” lifetime employment and the company took good care of him. They paid his salary, provided housing, and made sure that all the necessary facilities (schools, shops, entertainment, sports facilities, etc.) were conveniently available.

When I sketch this picture of the “Old World” working life to my students, none of them are thrilled. Some of them cringe. Some of them laugh. But none of them can understand why “security” and “stability” mattered so much to my grandfather.

The world is so very different now. For younger people, my grandfather’s life isn’t the life they dream of. Quite the contrary. They want more excitement. They want to experience many new things and live their lives to the fullest degree possible.

And I can understand this. The world is so much “smaller” and more available now than in the days of my grandfather. The Internet gives us more information, and social media helps us connect to so many more possibilities.

We feel empowered, want to experiment, and have a completely different purpose in life. We want to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to do something we can be proud of. We are all more entrepreneurial. We don’t settle quickly. We are continually looking for new challenges. We live in a world of seemingly endless possibilities and exist in a constant state of agitation.

It doesn’t matter what we aspire to be; the key point is that modern society affords a greater range of opportunities than ever before to create and engage in a meaningful life project through “work.”

Ironically, the fast-paced change of the digital transformation (we live in an age of shorter innovation cycles and experience an exponential growth of digital technology) makes it more difficult to settle for — or even expect — “lifetime employment.”

We live in a new age of opportunities.

My “Unconventional” Life

Like my grandfather, I also work at a large company. But I am also a university professor. I am in the lucky position to be able to combine the worlds of “theory” and “practice.”

People that I talk to all see the advantages of “alternating” between hectic business deals and a time for thinking, and writing. “Action” and “reflection” are often viewed as the basic building blocks for a productive and fulfilling life.

Over the years, this life has become even more exciting. I am receiving an increasing number of opportunities to teach, give training and presentations, and research at other organizations (governments, international agencies, and research institutions).

This has created an “unconventional” lifestyle typical for the “gig economy” of the “future.”

Take last month as an example.

I had the opportunity to teach in Japan, give a training course in Kazakhstan, speak at a conference in Japan again, and fly to Colombia for lectures and workshops.

I was also involved in research regarding communication strategies for companies, the ingredients of successful platform companies, and entrepreneurship and venture capital.

And the reason I mention my schedule? My life is just one example of the transition to a “gig economy.” Traditional employment (my work at the university and a large company) is still available, but the “gig economy” is gaining traction. It offers new opportunities for everyone.

It isn’t surprising that many times (and this is increasing at a phenomenal rate) I hear from my current and former students that they are looking for these freelance and “gig opportunities.” They see them as a stepping stone for their future career. It will give them new experiences and help them improve their skills.

And here lies my concern.

They are usually not prepared for the “gig economy.”

Over the years I learned that being successful in the “gig economy” means that you have to live (what I call) an “unconventional” life.

What do I mean by this?

It’s like being a professional athlete. Your life will consist of many “do’s and don’ts” (diet, training, rest, etc.). The same is true for being successful in the “gig economy.” It’s really like being an athlete. The freedom that results from the “gig economy” is often the result of huge responsibilities, which will put “work-life-balance” discussions in a new light.

Some “Training Tips”

Here are some of the lessons that work for me:

1 — Find your own way

It isn’t about the time you wake up, the number of books you read, whether you go for an early morning run or not (BTW, I always go for a daily run because I love it). Other things can be more important and everyone has to find their own.

2 — You must “show and perform”

Whatever you do (giving a presentation, or writing a report) you must understand your audience and be fully committed.

3 — Show passion

In a highly competitive world, enthusiasm matters. Show that you care and that you are committed to “adding value” to your audience/readers.

4 — Appreciate “serendipity”

I rarely decline an invitation. The reason? Because “new events” usually provide opportunities that take my life in new and often fortuitous directions.

5 — Always think about content

It should continually be updated and relevant to your audience.

6 — Be consistent and persistent

For instance, try to use social media frequently and regularly

7 — Be coherent

A coherent — and constantly evolving — message is important. Of course, you can change the content, but always explain why this change is necessary and improves “your” story.

8 — Be patient

Too many times I see my colleagues start something, but when the results aren’t immediately what they expected or hoped for, they give up. Don’t stop, reflect and learn!

9 — Don’t be “satisfied”

And here I don’t mean that you can never be happy with a performance. Of course, you should enjoy every performance and get energy from it. But always be humble and remember that you’re only as good as your last performance. Again, try to reflect, learn and improve yourself continually.

10 — Build your own story and brand

Build and then use a community, and engage in teamwork.

So, What’s Next?

Of course, there are many issues with the “gig economy”: pay (low wages), pension, tax, healthcare coverage, employee protection, employee rights, benefits, etc.

This is all true and needs to be looked at.

But we should also prepare ourselves and the next generation for the “gig economy.”

And this is a task of education. We have to help our students understand the “gig economy” and give them the skills to help them increase their chances to be successful.

This is what I am currently doing in Colombia: Helping students find their way into the digital future.

Thank you for reading! Please click the 👏 below, or leave a comment.

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