Parents and the gig economy

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece by me and Dani Blum called “The Gig Economy Offers Parents Options and Obstacles.” We write about several parents who drive for GrubHub, Uber, et al, and how these gigs fit in their lives.

The key upside, as Sara Sutton of FlexJobs told us, is that the gig economy allows people to turn time into money, flexibly, and without long-term commitments. Entrepreneurs have always had some control over their schedules, but coming up with a money-making business idea takes time. (I’d note, as a self-employed writer/speaker/podcaster that building up enough of a reputation to make money takes a lot of time too!) Gigs let you make money on your own schedule without you having to come up with something genius, and without you having to build your personal brand. As she notes, this is a chronic need in the labor market, and gigs fill it.

Of course, you might not make too much money. We write about some of the downsides — unpaid waiting time, uncertain income, etc. These downsides are behind some of the recent attempts to regulate the gig economy.

Anyway, please give it a read! And if you are a frequent customer or worker of the gig economy, I’d love to hear about it too. We’ve just started using Instacart, which I have found fascinating.

14 thoughts on “Parents and the gig economy

  1. Love the auto-populated blog post included below – “The working stay-at-home mom” which, in my working situation, complements the new gig economy post almost perfectly.

    Every time someone asks what I do, I feel so unsure of what to say (really, I just need to take 5 minutes and memorize a script already!!). I have had a number of side gigs through the years that have ebbed and flowed; I work from home almost exclusively, but I stay-at-home with our preschooler on 2 working days/week, but do deal with work needs as required on those days, with no additional childcare in the house. My husband and I are self-employed, but the work tends to be relatively flexible; I also work a 1/4 position at a local university.

    I have really enjoyed fitting different opportunities together, but appreciate that you discussed some of the potential shortcomings of this type of work as well. It can be easy to romanticize the flexibility (which is great, except when it’s not..).

    1. @Elisabeth – you definitely need an elevator pitch! Everyone does – if you can describe what you do in 2 sentences or so then people can help and expand your network, which is always good for side gigs.

  2. I use Instacart frequently and the other day had a woman deliver my groceries with the assistance of who I assume were her two children. I thought it was a great way to get the whole family involved in earning some money, and teach her kids the value of hard work at the same time!

    1. I think you can bet that if she had her kids with her, it was by necessity not choice. Let’s not romanticise the absence of childcare options.

      1. Yes, totally agree. This strikes me as a likely indicator of deep financial need and lack of childcare. No one wants to drag their young kids along with them on their poorly paid gig job. . .

  3. Instacart (and also Target drive up) has been life changing. I find the fees associated with delivery too much to stomach (I am super frugal) but curbside pickup powered by Instacart is amazing. Without it, I cannot stop at the grocery store on the way home from work (wouldn’t make it to daycare in time before closing) and I love that I can plan/schedule from anywhere. We have so far had only minimal problems (wrong items and whatnot) and have found that the produce selected is just fine- which is a common concern i hear from people who haven’t tried it. I hope you are also enjoying it and getting some of your time back!

  4. I have used Instacart a few times. I have found it best to give the shoppers zero flexibility (no substitute or a specific substitute), or you might end up with balsamic vinegar rather than red wine vinegar. Excepting that one hitch, for which I take responsibility, the speed and service have been excellent.

    As an academic, I have great flexibility over the summer and would like to convert part of that time into cash in order to meet some financial goals. I’ve been contemplating the advantages of starting a higher-paying side hustle (probably tutoring or college essay proofreading/editing) vs. taking a mindless side job for which I do not need to generate business (whether a “gig” or a more traditional part-time temporary job). There are other options, but in any event this article hits on a lot of the points that I’ve been mulling over….

    1. @smh – I bet there would be a way you could tutor over the summer for a virtual platform that you wouldn’t need to build up. We’ve used Varsity Tutors (a BOBW advertiser!) and I’m not exactly how they hire tutors or what sort of commitment they require, but I bet you could find a tutoring platform that would take 4 months of availability and match you up with students that they would find.

  5. My family began boycotting gig economy services whenever possible. There are 2 we cannot seem to opt out of, which is courier delivery, because retailers are not always transparent before purchase about what company they will use for delivery, and AirBnB because other self catering options have nearly disappeared. I have had students shaking in my office because of spending too much time working their gig economy job, which does not yield them steady income. I’ve had parcels lost or damaged. My city is overrun with learner drivers on motorcycles regularly breaking the traffic laws to make their deliveries. We have had incidents of violence and harassment from Uber drivers. Friends have had AirBnB hosts simply not turn up. Give me security, regulation, and fair working conditions any day. It would be better to see companies provide regular, guaranteed income with more flexible schedules and viable part-time hours including benefits so that second jobs still provide essential employee protection. There’s clearly a need for a gig economy of some kind, as second jobs or flexible working have always been required especially for parents, but I don’t like this current iteration.

    1. @Rebecca- it seems there should be some middle ground. Some regulatory attempts like AB 5 in CA are quite broad. The rule that writing 35 articles a year for a publication makes you an employee misreads how many of us work. I write a weekly productivity column for a publication — I have never been to the office, never even met my editor in person. I spend a few hours per week on it in my home office, it’s a small percent of my income. Why would I be an employee? In many cases, the gig workers we interviewed work for several of the apps. So they’re not just an Uber driver, they’re also driving for Lyft, GrubHub, wherever the pickings look good for the evening. One could hope that companies would create flexible part-time jobs with benefits, but the economics of that except on the very high end may not be worth it, so the job just wouldn’t be created at all. It’s going to be a challenge to figure out how to put in protections while recognizing that people want the ability to turn time into money flexibly and without a long-term commitment.

    2. I agree. I read the article and was pleased it at least mentioned the very real- massive- problems of the gig economy. Of course we all value flexibility. I have worked flexibly myself, combining different roles, both in my employed & self employed work for years. But there is a vast difference between the flexibility an academic or high-earning self-employed professional has, and the alleged ‘flexibility’ a delivery person has. The latter is not really flexibility, it is pure exploitation and has to do with the destruction and undermining of regulations, unions and workers’ protections worldwide over the last decades. I try to boycott the gig economy whenever I can, and when I do use such services I try to pay as much as I can and ideally would prefer to pay someone who is an employee with sick pay etc.

      Far too many people nowadays make far too little to live on, and as a society we undervalue all sorts of many important roles- eg nurses, teachers, carers of the elderly. Let alone ‘gig economy’ workers- cleaners, drivers etc. Without these people who work in incredibly stressful conditions, our economy wouldn’t work, and yet we as a society pay them a pittance. It’s a disgrace really.

  6. How does healthcare fit into the gig economy? I have considered going part time or freelance, but I currently support our family with employer-sponsored healthcare. I’d have to think that universal healthcare would improve the gig economy. Did this come up in any of the interviews?

    1. @Jeanna – it would certainly make it easier for people to do part-time jobs or move between jobs, though there are always trade-offs. I got group health insurance through a professional freelancer association for a while, and I know that’s what a lot of people do if they are not in a family with access to employer-sponsored insurance. A lot of the people we talked to did gigs as a supplement to their main job, or as a secondary earner in the family (i.e. the spouse had a full-time conventional job).

  7. Very interesting article!

    Looking forward to hearing how you like Instacart – I researched it recently and almost paid for a membership but then decided against it when I learned that they inflate the prices at most stores. We use Whole Foods delivery which is free with our Prime membership and then we also use Giant pickup occasionally (which is $2.95, but their prices are better than WF and we spend at least $3-5 on a tip for the WF deliverer anyway). So I guess in an average month we’re paying about $20 in tips or delivery fees for grocery delivery/pickup, but the hours saved are well worth it!

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