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Are we all now gigworkers? The Revolution of the Individual

With just over five in 10 working full-time on payroll in the UK it's time for more ambition, excitement and noise with regards gigworking. Charles Russam says we are in a Revolution of the Individual but good information about gigworking is sorely lacking

Are we all now gigworkers? The Revolution of the Individual

Are we all gigworkers? Great question. It depends on what you mean by 'gigworkers', what you mean by 'all' and what you mean by 'now'.

This is an area of great change; full of paradox, complexity, definition issues, semantics and all constantly variable. The macro picture is that nothing much, in principle, has changed for several hundred years. The micro picture is that change has accelerated hugely in recent times, characterised by bursts of progress and continuous and various levels of exploitation. Covid and Brexit has added significantly to this process of change. This could be called the Revolution of the Individual.

The implications for the major stakeholders – government, the tax authorities (in the UK that's HMRC), businesses, unions and Individuals – are profound.

So firstly, we need to know exactly what gigworkers are and where we get the information from. The best place to go for this labour market information in the UK is the Office of National Statistics. If you go to its section called EMP01 – the monthly employment statistics – and ask what is the proportion of the total UK working population of 33 million who are full-time employees on a payroll you don't get an answer. 

The answer that we have come up with at Working Free is that about half (55%) of the UK’s working population are full-time employees on a payroll. The other half (45%) do something different. Understanding this 45% is one of the difficulties: in understanding the size, the terminology, the definitions and the constant change and variability in virtually all aspects of this phenomenon. In fact, this 45% are part-timers, self-employed, contractors, freelancers, interim managers, temps, consultants (Independent or nearly so), management consultants, semi-retired people, portfolio workers, off-payroll workers, those who work through PSCs (personal service companies) and full-time workers increasingly doing jobs on the side.

Some see themselves as working consultants and some see themselves as unemployed and this might vary from month to month. Additionally, many move around within these categories and on and off permanent payrolls. Faced with this, it seems sensible to refer to them as gigworkers. Why not? What else would work better? The feature they all have in common is that they are not dependent on one employer for all their time. They need to fall back on their own efforts and energies.

So coming back to the stakeholders, what does this mean for them?

Government: Government seems to want every worker to be on the permanent payroll – measured, controlled, taxed and protected. The classic definition of 'a job'. Observing the UK Government's almost erratic handling of 'the self-employed' community in the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn't seem to know much about this 45%. Does it recognise just how extensive atypical working actually is? 

HMRC: The statutory task of HMRC is to collect tax as and when due. HMRC generally does a good job under challenging circumstances. But the underlying philosophy of HMRC and the UK Government is that gigworkers are mostly tax dodgers. Again, a complex area.

Businesses: Hurrah for atypical work/ other than standard work. Gigworkers – part of an overall philosophy of outsourcing and managing risks of peaks and troughs – are perceived as 'cheap, quick and bidable'. This is bad news for some and good news for others. But they are vital for today’s 24/7 working, flexibility and efficiency. It is crucial to have a balance, which is not always achieved, particularly in periods of major change.

Unions: There have been a few years of decreasing membership for unions through difficulties in finding new membership targets as large concentrations of workers decrease. But the last three years have seen union membership increase. What is important is that their traditional mission of preventing abuse is clearly needed more now than ever. Adapting to new working models is important.

Individuals: For some time individuals have been moving centrestage, driven by what they want to do, are entitled to do and need to do in the light of new pressures. This presents challenges but also opportunities. Whatever their employment status, we are beginning to see what could be described as a new Industrial Revolution – The Revolution of the Individual.

The promotion of gigworking in its broader sense calls for the dissemination of more information, more ambition and more excitement. Expose abuse but celebrate successes. More noise is needed – particularly as many people in the workforce will be finding themselves needing more options to consider as part of personal transition processes.

Charles Russam, pictured below, is managing director of Working Free, a specialist career advisory business supporting senior level executives coming off the permanent payroll into an independent working lifestyle, and Devonshire House Network. You can download a copy of the Devonshire House report on gigworkers here.

Charles Russam, managing director of Working Free

Published 27 January 2021
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