By Robert Hickson 07/12/2015

A sure sign of when to be skeptical of futurists’ (or journalists’) predictions is if the title conforms to the “Why x is the future of y” narrative.

That’s just future schlock. (As in “cheap or inferior goods or material”).

Take, for example, 3D printing is the future of manufacturingWhy lab-grown meat is the future of food and Why the gig economy is the future of work.

These seem like classic examples of “hedgehog” futurists. One big idea, which is easy to promote. The future, though, isn’t usually so tidy.

The “gig economy”

The current hype around the “gig (or sharing) economy” seems to be based on the way in which firms like Uber and TaskRabbit are changing how some can get work, and extrapolating that to many other areas. There is often an echo chamber effect, where the latest trend or catch-phrase is uncritically promoted.

Proponents imagine a utopian future where people do the work that they want, when they want, and get well paid for it. Such a life isn’t really new. Many have and do already live such a life (though not perhaps as free to chose when they work) as contractors – in agriculture, construction, and consulting for example. In New Zealand, a third of the workforce are defined as “non-standard workers”.

What the current “gig economy” is about is the use of digital tools to find and in some cases undertake the work. Some can get very well paid this way, and like actors and rock stars, use agents to find the interesting gigs. But this is the minority, and doesn’t seem likely to apply to most of us.

There’s not much data that supports a substantial rise in people doing freelance gigs, or declaring themselves self-employed. But the data is admittedly poor and people may not be reporting all their sources of income.

Generally though, people are better off as employees, where they can benefit from employment protection agreements, income security, social support, and, often, subsidized health care and/or superannuation coverage. Some contend that the gig economy will result in less well-paid workers and a decline in the middle class.

Finland is introducing a national basic income, so it will be interesting to see if this stimulates the growth of a more entrepreneurial gig economy.

For many companies having an organizational culture that values and supports employees is critical to their success. If most of the workforce becomes freelance, what happens to the firms that provide the underlying economic base? We are still a long way from an automated workforce that could do this.

This all comes back to Carlota Perez’s view that

“… the full deployment of the enormous wealth-creating potential brought forth by each technological revolution requires, each time, the establishment of an adequate socio-institutional framework”

Technology by itself doesn’t change society.

Can we better understand the future of work?

If you are interested in exploring what the future of work may be like, rather than being spoon fed one view, then take a look at a more structured approach in the UK Government’s The Future of work: jobs and skills in 2030.


Featured image: Flickr CC, Stephen McCulloch.