Can a Side Hustle Be a ‘Proper’ Job?

Forget ‘Good’ or ‘Bad,’ Workers Want Something Real

Headlines tout the gig economy as the future of work, but people driving for rideshare companies and delivering meals say they really want “real jobs,” writes sociologist Alexandrea J. Ravenelle. A food delivery worker. Courtesy of kaysgeog/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

This piece publishes as part of the Zócalo/The James Irvine Foundation public program and editorial series, “What Is a Good Job Now?” which investigates low-wage work across California. Register for the event “What Is a Good Job Now?” In Gig Work on Wednesday, March 13 in Oakland, CA—live in person and online.

By all accounts, the 29-year-old woman I interviewed was a successful freelancer. She described herself as an “arts worker able to support myself in New York.” When the pandemic started, she lost all of her gigs, but she was established enough that one of her clients gave her two weeks of severance.

As a member of what I have termed the “officially unemployed,” she qualified for, and received, unemployment insurance. The stability of weekly unemployment benefits was a stark contrast to the usual volatility of her career. It raised uncomfortable questions.

“Why am I doing this? Why shouldn’t I get a real job? That has benefits and other nice things that I can rely on, that I won’t have to gig work for the rest of my life,” she told me. “I imagine a real job being a 9 to 5, or something that’s regular and consistent, that has benefits that are connected to it, and maybe one day you’ll retire from it, and they’ll give you money for that. I don’t even know. I can’t even fathom it.”

For years, it’s been clear that the idea of what constitutes a “good job” is changing. For the baby boomers’ generation, it often involved a salary, a private office, paid vacation, regular raises, health insurance, and a 401k with a decent company match. For the parents of baby boomers—aka the “greatest generation”—a good job offered a pension instead of a 401(k), and crucially, was enough to support a family on one income.

Academics generally define a good job as one that pays well, offers opportunities for advancement, and allows for control over one’s work environment. Good jobs allowed workers to work from home during the pandemic and continue to offer remote opportunities. Bad jobs offer low wages, little in the way of benefits or opportunities for advancement, no autonomy, and no control over termination.

Yet, as I note in my new book, Side Hustle Safety Net: How Vulnerable Workers Survive Precarious Times, when many workers dare to dream about a better tomorrow, they don’t talk about a good job or a bad job. They just want a “real job.”

A real job can be a good job, but it doesn’t have to be. As one gig worker in my interviews defined it, a real job includes “full-time hourly work” that offers “benefits” and “more financial security.” As another worker explained, a traditional job meant “I’m going to get either the same amount of pay every week or just know that I have the same hours every week.”

The hundreds of gig workers I’ve interviewed over the last eight years utilize numerous synonyms in discussing a real job: “proper job,” “traditional job,” “a jobby career,” “a real person job,” and “a big girl job.” For all of the headlines proclaiming that the gig economy is the future of work, the fact is that a large majority of workers who have been doing this work—including freelancers and gig-platform workers—want full-time work in their future. A 2019 survey conducted by Axios and Survey Monkey found that 79 percent of respondents would rather have one stable full-time job than multiple jobs with the option to choose how and when they want to work.

For all of the headlines proclaiming that the gig economy is the future of work, the fact is that a large majority of workers who have been doing this work—including freelancers and gig-platform workers—want full-time work in their future.

As a 23-year-old New Yorker who had worked as a personal assistant, dog walker, and babysitter explained, “I don’t want to wake up one day and be 40 years old and still doing those types of jobs. I still want to have something proper going for myself.”

This lack of “real work” is not limited to rideshare drivers and food delivery workers, either. It is increasingly found in other fields thanks to shadow gig platforms that offer business-to-business staffing. Instawork places workers in 1099 jobs in restaurants, while AllShifts focuses on gig-based nursing jobs, and Roadie offers store delivery work. Even professional jobs aren’t free from app-based gig work thanks to Graphite, Catalant, and Business Talent Group, platforms that are used by almost all Fortune 500 companies, according to the Harvard Business Review.

For companies, the benefit of gig work is that it allows them to outsource risk to workers. Workers take on the risk of slow periods where a lack of demand can leave them scrambling for income, the risk of a platform “deactivating” them without warning or recourse, and the risk of occupational injury from hours spent driving or working in unsafe places. Workers also face the risk of sexual harassment or otherwise uncomfortable experiences with clients who think anything goes behind closed doors. And workers have found themselves hired for scam tasks or driving passengers engaged in criminally questionable activities.

In addition to these risks, for many workers, piecing together little jobs is not financially sustainable. Thirty-two percent of gig workers report it is very difficult to cover their expenses and pay their bills compared to 18% of W2 service sector workers.

There are efforts to make gig work into better gig work, such as New York City’s minimum wage for delivery workers, but few efforts to turn gig work into real work.

One exception is the California law known as AB-5, which required that workers be classified as employees if their work was a regular part of the company’s business. The goal of the law’s authors was that employers would reduce their reliance on independent contractors or 1099 workers, and instead classify those workers as employees—thus turning gig work into real work. But a myriad of exceptions managed to undermine the goal of the law. Then, Lyft and other gig economy giants spent $200 million convincing voters to adopt Proposition 22, which exempted platform-based gig workers from AB-5 rules (at least until the California Supreme Court rules on the legality of their exemptions).

Faced with these challenges, many gig workers attempt to create “real job” security and income stability through “polyemployment,” meaning working multiple jobs. Taking on multiple part-time or gig-based jobs is a way for workers to ensure that they always have some money coming in. Indeed, a recent report from H&R Block notes that millennials—who are now between 28 and 43 years old—average two jobs each, with “nearly one in three intending to work for an app-based company.”

But any temporary stability and security offered by such polyemployment is often a mirage. Job hunting continues to be a daily, if not hourly, activity as workers wait to be summoned by platform algorithms whose lack of clarity and transparency means that workers don’t know if work today means work tomorrow. Meanwhile, any technical difficulties they experience with the apps can lead to income losses.

There are solutions. One of the problems with AB-5 was that it was limited to California. Employers could—and did—simply shift their workforce to other states. A national equivalent to AB-5 would circumvent that option.

Another option would be to penalize companies when more than 20% of their workforce is classified as independent contractors. Companies that have frequent layoffs are required to contribute more to state unemployment insurance coffers. Why not do something similar for companies that rely more on gig workers? Gig work might not be exactly as precarious as unemployment, but it’s close.

Likewise, 401(k) plans are mandated by the IRS to be tested annually to ensure that they’re not just a wealth-building tool for the highest-compensated employees, but are beneficial to all employees. Similar tests—comparing the ratio of gig workers to employees—could be required to ensure that real jobs are available to everyone who works there.  If we don’t allow companies to hoard retirement savings for their senior employees, why should we allow them to hoard the “real jobs” themselves?

As for the unemployed arts worker in the opening vignette? She’s now a staff member at a local nonprofit. She has health insurance, paid time off, and a 401(k) with a match. She was one of the lucky ones. She got a real job. But she still freelances on the side.


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