Unintended Consequences Series: Untethered Work

The rapid ascent of the gig economy, marked by a seismic shift towards temporary and freelance work, has cast a spell of ambivalence over the landscape of labor. The freedom to work where you want, when you want — poolside in Bali, or at home in your pajamas— seduces with promises of empowerment, flexibility, and work/life balance (meaning — plenty of “Me” time). Yet at the same time, it raises alarms of exploitation, fragility, and instability. In this iteration of my Unintended Consequences of Tech series — let’s take a closer look at what I’ve called “untethered work” — ushered in by the growth of platforms, from Uber to Upwork — to uncover the unintended consequences of the gig economy  —  as workers pushback on efforts to lure them back to the office post Covid. 

The gig economy invites an era of personal autonomy, offering workers seemingly unprecedented levels of freedom around their work lives: freedom to work how and when they want; freedom to plug in or out at will, and freedom to job hop, monkey-branching from job to job in an effort to shortcut the long line of “paying one’s dues.” This reconfiguration of working life is appealing, particularly for those seeking to escape the rigid confines of the traditional Boomer career trajectory and the 9-to-5 job. 

Portable technologies and the proliferation of digital platforms — including email programs, Zoom and other conferencing software, and the increased availability of high speed internet have enabled “work from home / work from anywhere” — including from tricked out vans as workers seek Instagrammable adventures on the road. However, there are unintended consequences to unhooking from work — included a sense of disconnection and loneliness, a lack of stability, and perhaps over time, a race to the bottom, as gig workers increasingly compete with global workers from economies where the average cost of living is significantly lower, leading to a reduction of wages as “the market decides.” Although gigging certainly has its charms — we need to look it square in the face to also address it’s darker sides. 

The darker undercurrents of the gig economy reveal a precarious world, where the dissolution of traditional employment structures leads to an erosion of worker rights. The movie Nomadland depicted just this struggle, as RV-living gig workers chased seasonal work, often living on the edge of precarity, particularly if an unexpected bill (like the RV or van breaking down), or an illness hits.  In the gig world, instability is a feature, not a bug: 

Benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and retirement plans become nebulous concepts, and are outside the reach of many gig workers. Many will never be able to retire. 

Without the protections usually afforded by full-time employment, workers are left vulnerable to exploitation or struggle. The absence of a guaranteed income, coupled with the pressure to compete in a saturated global marketplace, can lead to a race to the bottom where only the platform providers truly thrive. 

The “unlimited freedom” and flexibility promised by the gig economy often translates into instability over time, which can affect well-being and the overall quality of life. The constant hustle for the next gig, the anxiety tied to inconsistent income, and the isolation from the sense of community found in traditional workplaces – are all  unintended consequences facing giggers. Somew are having to work 2 or 3 or even 4 jobs to patchwork together a full time gig. And with the pressure to “look perfect” on social media (despite counter trends of sort of radical authenticity that are popping up as counter trend amongst the youngest giggers), the struggle may overwhelm some. Loneliness is on the rise: One digital nomad I interviewed for my book told me that loneliness is her constant companion: she’s never anywhere long enough to really make deep connections, or friendships, yet she doesn’t spend any time in her hometown, and so her older friendships are sort of drifting away. It’s a lonely limbo that many find themselves in. 

Of course, the gig economy is not a monolithic entity — your mileage will vary. Untethered work offers both opportunities and challenges. For some, it is a pathway to exploration and travel, freedom from traditional constraints and expectations and creativity; for others, it can quickly spin into a quagmire of insecurity and struggle.

The gig economy presents a nuanced and complex new work tapestry, with threads of both empowerment and exploitation. It behooves us to dig a little deeper past the tuned and fantastical images on Instagram — to delve into the intricacies of this phenomenon, seeking not to demonize or glorify, but to understand and navigate. In this way, we can shape a future where we navigate the various “flavors” of the gig economy – fully untethered, hybrid, or in-person “shoulder to shoulder” work — or perhaps some patchwork of them all, in order to gleen the benefits of work from home and in-person work together.