15 October 2021

What will it take for politicians to understand the gig economy?

By James Frayne

Most politicians and advisers work in predictable paid employment, receiving their salary by PAYE at the end of the month. Just a tiny proportion have set up or run their own businesses and almost none have worked in the new wave of businesses in the ‘gig economy’. This is surely one of the reasons why politicians have been so sceptical – even hostile – towards those not in conventional employment in recent times.

Fundamentally, politicians struggle to understand those who have chosen a different career path to them, often wrongly assuming everyone must want to replicate their 9-to-5 office job. But the evidence suggests that those who work in the gig economy have different priorities and responsibilities. An opinion research project my agency recently completed for Uber reveals just how different.

Our surveys – one of 900 drivers on their app, the other of 1000 members of the public – show drivers value flexibility in their working life nearly three times as much as the general public. Furthermore, drivers are almost twice as likely as the general public to have another significant responsibility, such as caring, learning or another type of work.

Those that work in the gig economy – for businesses like Uber and others – often prefer their job because of the life they want to lead, or because of the life they have no option but to lead. Often, workers in the gig economy either thrive on freedom, or they survive on it.

After all, there are very few jobs where people can take on more work literally at the push of a button, as you can on many apps. If someone needs more cash in a particular week to pay for an unexpected purchase, they can choose to drive or deliver more. If their child’s doctor’s appointment is suddenly moved, they can choose to move their work to another part of the day that better fits their diary.

While there is no doubt that many employers – particularly post-Covid – are becoming more family friendly and generally more sympathetic to the lives their staff lead, the freedom the gig economy provides is on another scale.

Honestly, how many of even the most enlightened employers would just grant someone more hours at a moment’s notice because they needed extra cash to buy a present for a loved one? Or turn a blind eye to an immediate absence because someone wanted to take their child to the park? Not many. This is not through a lack of empathy or willing in most cases, they simply cannot run conventional businesses in this way.

The gig economy can. It is one of the most dynamic areas of the economy – and certainly one of the friendliest to those that need flexibility in their lives. And yet, while politicians regularly talk about their desire to create a dynamic, innovative economy, and about the need for employers to be family friendly, here they are, regularly taking action that restricts the very part of the economy that helps meet these objectives.

What will change politicians’ attitudes towards businesses in the gig economy and those that work with and for them? It’s hard to say. The continued use of their services will at least make them question their own hypocrisy.

What would really change their mind is if they more readily engaged their drivers in conversation and asked them why flexibility and freedom works for them. The chances are, either their driver will thrive on the flexible life they live, or they will be thankful that such flexibility is available such that they can live the other life they either want to or need to.

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James Frayne is a Founding Partner of policy research agency Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.