Ageing workers get the gig

James Riley
Editorial Director

Forget the stereotype of the millennial choosing to work in the gig economy for the flexibility it offers – the chief economist for leading online job site, Indeed, says data indicates the gig economy is increasingly populated by an older, highly skilled cohort with specialised experience, many of whom can’t get a job elsewhere.

Speaking at a Future of Work event organised by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Jed Kolko, said: “One of the biggest misperceptions when we think about the gig economy is that it’s about young people, that young people are in some way different and running their lives differently.

“Some of the most revealing data on this in the US has been that it is older workers that are most likely to be in alternative work arrangements – on demand gig workers as well as freelancing and contract workers. Older workers have seen the biggest increase in alternative work in the last ten years.

Jed Kolko: Oldies more likely to be gig workers than millennials

“This will only become more important as the share of the US workforce that is 65 or older is expected to increase by about 50 per cent over the next decade. When we think about flexibility and who the ideal worker is, the person we should have in mind are people in their late 50s or 60s who want that flexibility, who are not going to retire at 65, as opposed to thinking about flexibility only appealing to millennials.”

Claire McFarland, director of innovation and entrepreneurship for the US Studies Centre, cited statistics suggesting that as much as a third of the US workforce was now working “on demand”.

“Those who do gig work by choice are happier than those who work 9-5 but about a third of US gig workers do it because they can’t find better jobs or better pay elsewhere. And that is concerning if you have this sector of jobs that are growing but you have got a very large proportion doing it because they can’t get another job,” Ms McFarland said.

Equipping people with the skills for the new world of work was a challenge for both school and university educators according to Professor Rae Cooper, Associate Dean at the University of Sydney Business School. She said that this semester she had retired a technical course from the Bachelor of Commerce course in favour of a ‘leading and influencing’ course.

While these sorts of skills are what business says it needs and resonate with the skills that the recent Gonski report called for school leavers to be furnished with, they are not the skills prized by the gig economy according to Dr Kolko.
“When you are in contract mode, no one hires you to learn something new. They hire you because you have done it before, the set of skills fit the scope of the project.

“There is a set of skills that make a lot more sense in the full time, in-house world whereas the description for skills might be very, very different in the gig world,” he said.

Asked how governments might respond to the changing world of work the speakers noted the need for clear and well thought through policy on skilled immigration, the development of more modern public sector hiring practices, and also tools to manage change rather than government focusing on attempts to slow down change.

Professor Cooper said that: “I don’t think Government is really engaging in the future of work apart from some glib statements about innovation and jobs of the future and the gaps for young people. We definitely need a more joined up strategy and Government has a really important role to play.”

Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt this week introduced a private members bill to the lower house designed to carve better provisions for gig workers into the Fair Work Act. However, this is not expected to secure the support of the major parties, leaving gig economy businesses and workers to navigate the growing demands of the unions directly.
According to Dr Kolko one key to success will involve “making contract work more stable and secure with more of the upside of flexibility and less of the down side of flexibility.”

Professor Cooper described this as “mutually beneficial flexibility,” where businesses and employees worked in concert to flex up or down.

Right now, Dr Kolko said that Government narratives regarding jobs tended to focus on the pace of change.

But he said; “The sense of anxiety about the future has less to do with change and more about the challenge in managing change.

“My wish would be (to hear) from Government less about the right rate of change and more about tools for managing change.”

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