Gig Workers Understand Their Value and Value Their Freedom

Traditional employees and gig workers think very differently. Some of their thinking is hard-wired as part of their personality, but most of what they believe about work has been the result of years of conditioning.

Here’s my favorite metaphor for traditional and gig workers.  (Courtesy: Aesop, circa 564 B.C.)

There was once a Wolf who got very little to eat because the Dogs of the village were so wide awake and watchful.

One night this Wolf happened to fall in with a fine fat House Dog who had wandered a little too far from home. The Wolf would gladly have eaten him then and there, but the House Dog looked strong enough to leave his marks should he try it. So the Wolf spoke very humbly to the Dog, complimenting him on his fine appearance.

“You can be as well-fed as I am if you want to,” replied the Dog. “Leave the woods; there you live miserably. Why, you have to fight hard for every bite you get. Follow my example and you will get along beautifully.”

“What must I do?” asked the Wolf.

“Hardly anything,” answered the House Dog. “Chase people who carry canes, bark at beggars, and fawn on the people of the house. In return you will get tidbits of every kind, chicken bones, choice bits of meat, sugar, cake, and much more, not to speak of kind words and caresses.”

The Wolf had such a beautiful vision of his coming happiness that he almost wept. But just then he noticed that the hair on the Dog’s neck was worn and the skin was chafed.

“What is that on your neck?”

“Perhaps you see the mark of the collar to which my chain is fastened.”

“What! A chain!” cried the Wolf. “Don’t you go wherever you please?”

“Not always! But what’s the difference?” replied the Dog.

“All the difference in the world! I wouldn’t take all the tender young lambs in the world at that price.” And away ran the Wolf to the woods.

The essential difference between gig workers and traditional workers is that gig workers value their freedom more than security. Some have come to this wisdom the hard way: they’re been laid off (sometimes more than once) without notice from what seemed like “secure” jobs. They’ve learned that job security is an illusion. Market conditions, business models, or the global economy can change almost overnight (hello 2020) and we probably won’t see it coming. They prefer to be in charge of their own economic security.

Traditional workers sometimes get trapped in jobs that don’t really care for  – maybe even hate – because they’ve decided to trade challenge and meaning for security (or health benefits, or a retirement package, or something else that makes them feel secure.)

Traditional workers also trade in part of their value for security. I’ve known plenty of well-paid workers who’ve told me “I never compute my hourly rate. With the hours I’m putting in, I’m probably making less than minimum wage.” They’re only half kidding. They’ve accepted the bargain that says: “I’ll pay you a guaranteed salary every month, but in return, you’ll accept hours and hours of wasted time (meetings, non-essential busy work) and work as long as I ask you to.”

When an employer commits to paying a worker an hourly fee for every hour they spend in the office, every week, no matter what kind of tasks they’re doing (including chatting with coworkers and eating “Happy Retirement” cake in the breakroom), the employer has a vested interest in making that hourly rate as low as possible.

The employer also has a vested interest in getting as many hours of work as possible from a worker, since the extra hours (change of priorities, covering for absent or less productive workers, etc.) doesn’t cost any more.

When an employer hires a gig worker, the contract is different. First, both parties want to be sure that the scope of work is well-defined and specific. The employer doesn’t want to see hours spent on the project creep upward, since the hourly rate is known (and usually more expensive than traditional employees, because the best talent commands higher prices.) The gig worker doesn’t want to see the scope of work creep without provision for compensation.

The gig mentality mindset is becoming more and more common as younger workers start taking charge of the way they choose to work and to live. The confidence they build as young gig workers turns them into more confident consultants and business owners later in their careers. Most don’t see themselves returning to a traditional organization ever again.

There will always be a need for traditional workers and gig workers in the same space. But they’re as different as dogs and wolves.

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