An Urban's Rural View

Could the Gig Economy Unite Urban and Rural America?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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A salesman sells, a reporter reports, a teacher teaches -- but a farmer does more than just farm. On a given day a farmer may do the work of an agronomist, a mechanic, a commodity trader, a personnel manager -- you name it, a farmer does it.

And those are just the on-farm roles. These days many farmers also work off the farm; without off-farm income even some big farmers wouldn't survive. Around the world it's the same story. On two recent trips the guides who helped our groups find and identify local birds and beasts were farmers -- a rice farmer in Bhutan, a contract chicken farmer in Trinidad. They supplemented their income leading tours. Like farmers everywhere, they were men of many skills.

If you are a farmer or grew up on a farm, all of this may seem obvious to you. It is not obvious to people who lack a farm background. City dwellers specialize, and since the Industrial Revolution two-plus centuries ago their numbers have swelled. A typical urbanite does one job, like selling, reporting or teaching. Typically, he or she is a full-time employee of a single organization.

Or at least that's how it was up until a few years ago, before the emergence of the so-called "gig economy." In the gig economy, workers are contractors rather than employees, get paid by the task or assignment rather than a salary and do their jobs at times and places of their choosing rather than on an employer's schedule.

In the process, they're becoming more like farmers -- people of many skills.

To be sure, independent work isn't new. There have always been urbanites who were self-employed -- lawyers, plumbers, authors -- just as there have always been people who juggled jobs. If you've ever had a restaurant meal in New York or Los Angeles, you've probably been served by a waitress who was also an actress.

In recent years, though, the independent work force has been growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 11 million Americans earn their primary living from self-employment or temporary work. A new study by McKinsey (…), based in part on an online survey, broadens the definition of independent work to include people who engage in it to supplement their income. By that definition, the consulting firm says, between 54 million and 68 million Americans -- from 22% to 27% of the working-age population -- are independent workers.

The Internet is spurring the trend. It has made possible new kinds of independent work, like driving an Uber car. It has enabled workers playing more traditional roles, like wedding photographers, to find more jobs by advertising online. And it has allowed employers with temporary work or contracts to post their needs online.

Thanks to the Internet, McKinsey thinks the trend will accelerate. In a report on its study, the consulting firm said: "The Industrial Revolution moved much of the work force from self-employment to structured payroll jobs. Now the digital revolution may be creating a shift in the opposite direction."

McKinsey's online poll indicates that 72% of the Americans who work independently do so willingly. And these willing independent workers express more satisfaction with almost every aspect of their jobs, from income levels and benefits to workplace atmosphere and ability to grow professionally, than do full-time employees. They like being able to decide what to work on and how much to work on it. They like their independence.

That may be the most important way in which non-farm workers are becoming more like farmers. In the U.S., farmers have always lived in a quasi-gig economy; now city-dwellers are learning to like working gigs. And with good reason: To work independently is to be, for at least part of your life, your own boss.

I know how alluring that is. One of the reasons I spent 17 years of my life in Tokyo and Hong Kong was the independence it afforded. Most days, I got to decide how to use my time. My editors in New York were thousands of miles and 14 time zones away, which made it difficult for them to micromanage me.

Farmers get to micromanage themselves -- and so, in the gig economy, do increasing numbers of non-farm workers. Divided as urban and rural America are in many ways, the gig-economy may be one force working to pull them back together.



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3/17/2017 | 9:38 AM CDT
The truth of this thought has many implications. Including how we pay for health care. My thought is our current mess started with employers paying for health care doing WWII. Providing subsidized health care thru non taxed income for 80% ?? of citizens working as employees. But this is only one part of the story as our work force moves to independence. Our society is not geared for this move ,yet.