You Can’t Ignore the Gig Economy

Thinking of getting off the traditional career path?

Gigs for Life

When Diane Mulcahy first heard the term gig economy, she got goose bumps.

“I thought, oh my God that is the name of what I have been doing and how I have been thinking about life and career,” said the author of The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want.

Mulcahy has been a fellow (currently with the Kauffman Foundation), an adjunct professor, a restaurant reviewer, and has taken a year off to travel the world. Twice. “I was very interested in developing a career that consisted of a portfolio of gigs,” she told us.

Soon after learning the term gig economy, Mulcahy wrote a syllabus for a course on the topic for Babson College. She currently teaches the popular class where she tells students to stop looking for a job and lose the employee mindset.

We spoke to Mulcahy about how the gig economy became a thing and why we all need to be part of it.

The Gig Economy Book

Uncubed: The gig economy is not new. Fast food workers and even adjunct professors have been part of it for years, even if they didn’t use the term. Why is it getting so much attention now?

Mulcahy: One reason is that the gig economy is now infiltrating the middle class and what were previously steady, middle-class white-collar professional jobs.

The second reason is that it has infiltrated the tech ecosystem. You’re seeing all these startup companies and platforms that are supporting how independent workers work and those are venture capital backed, they’re based in Silicon Valley, and they’re some of our most highly valued, high-growth companies. Because the startup scene is now embracing and supporting the gig economy, we see a lot more written about it.

Once it’s tech, it’s interesting.

In your book, you emphasize that all workers should think like gig economy workers? Why?

First of all job security is gone. Unless you’re a tenured professor, nobody’s job is secure.

So that means at any time your job could be eliminated, automated, outsourced, offshored or contracted out. You need to have a plan for that. Gone are the days where you could comfortably settle into a company and a role and assume that you will have a stable job and steady paycheck. It doesn’t exist anymore.

The risk of not being an active participant in the gig economy in some way has become very high. It’s incredibly risky to basically outsource your professional development, your financial security, and your professional stability to one company.

What can traditional workers do to think more like gig economy workers?

1. Even if you’re a full-time employee, you should absolutely have an exit strategy.

2. I recommend that all full-time employees have a side gig. Entering the gig economy doesn’t have to mean leaving your job, but it does mean that you should be doing something in addition to your full-time job. Side gigs allow you, in some cases, to generate additional income and that might be attractive. But even if you’re not generating additional income, you are expanding your skills and increasing the size of your network. Both of which open opportunities for future work.

How best to explain the gig economy to an older generation? Or how do gigeconomy workers respond to their parents when they ask, “What do you do all day?”

It can be really hard to explain, although I do think the gig economy has gotten a lot more press and traction and discussion; I think it’s on people’s radar. The challenge is really explaining: it’s not just for Uber drivers. I think you should explain it to the parents, to older generations, in a way that emphasizes that the gig economy is really about anything that is not a full-time job and it crosses a variety of sectors, a variety of profession, and a variety of income levels. Making sure that they understand that just because you don’t have a full-time job, you haven’t dropped out [of the workforce].

I would also emphasize to the older generation how many opportunities exist for them in the gig economy. The gig economy is great for those parents who are looking to transition out of full-time work or who are thinking about retirement. [The gig economy] offers so many opportunities to remain engaged and active without having to hold a full-time job.

If you’re thinking of getting off the traditional career path and into the gig economy, what’s a good first step to take?

In the jobs-based economy, it was so easy to outsource our definition of success either through the company we work for or society in general. Success is so often defined as the corner office, the big salary, the big title, the promotion, the climb up the corporate ladder.

I think the first and most important thing you can do if you’re thinking about being a member of the gig economy is to really thoughtfully and deliberately and with great intention define your own version of success. Really thinking what matters to me? What is my version of what success looks like for me? And that’s both professional and personal.

I encourage readers to come up with their own definition of success, be really clear what that means to them and don’t outsource that to somebody else.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.