If we don't kill dreaded gig economy, it will kill us
The Tasc report on the mental health effects of precarious employment should ring alarm bells, writes Donal Lynch
There was a time, not that long ago, when the word gig still held a certain rock star resonance. When I got my first writing job, a year after college, my friends and I proudly trumpeted that now I had a gig, as opposed to something as tediously permanent and pensionable as a career. We were children of the Celtic Tiger and we took a lot for granted.
Our parents murmured about security, but those of us who could were thrilled to have escaped the office life sentence of 9-5 and put off growing up for a while. The real mugs, as far as we were concerned, were the people with jobs.
Fast-forward 15 years and the word gig has taken on entirely different associations; exploitation, poverty, insecurity. We now have a gig economy in which young people across a broad spectrum of professions - from teaching to retail - live pay cheque to pay cheque. 'If and when' contracts have become a new norm. And there is no glamour to it all. According to a report published last week by Tasc, the toll that this is taking on the physical and mental health of Irish workers, is enormous. The majority of participants in the study revealed that they went to work when they were ill, which often prolonged their illnesses.
The report cites research, which shows that precarious employment is strongly associated with depression and anxiety. Millennials in the gig economy are a third more likely to suffer mental health problems compared to those in secure work. I can't say any of these findings came as a massive surprise. As the years have passed, the toll that freelance work takes on the head and the heart has become apparent to me.
The unpredictability of the life, the disconnection from other workers, the lack of a clearly marked progression; all of these have ticked away as constant background anxieties. At times they have been at the forefront - in the US, where I lived for a time, there are even fewer rights accorded to freelance workers.
Proper healthcare was too expensive for me there and I often worked while sick. I have seen so many freelance colleagues burn out. The only consolation has been that, as the gig economy grows larger, our experience has become the rule, rather than the exception. What British business minister Margot James called "bogus self-employment" is now the new norm.
In a sense, journalism provides a great snapshot of the metastasising gig economy. The ESRI has found that, unlike in other EU member states, temporary workers are distributed throughout the Irish economy, regardless of educational level, and across large and small employers.
Like many professions, journalism was, for most of its history, defined by secure, stable employment, strict hierarchies, and powerful unions, whose influence has gradually been eroded in the face of difficult economic conditions, declining markets and private ownership of media companies. Consequently, as in many other fields (and as is inherent in late capitalism, according to Noam Chomsky) the distance between the average worker and the centres of power has gradually increased.
The Tasc report, released last week, talks of the normalising of zero-hour contracts through employment law in European countries; freelance work is normal now for newly graduated journalists; staff positions hardly exist for that bracket of worker. And perhaps in common with many lines of gig economy work, journalism has always attracted people who want above all, autonomy and flexibility. Hacks seem to be temperamentally built for gigs.
The real question for journalism, and for society generally, is whether the health risks associated with the gig economy are worth it. It is, of course, immoral to exploit other human beings but there are more selfish, purely capitalistic, reasons to take note of the mental health toll it takes on workers. The protections for workers that grew up during and after the industrial revolution were driven as much by a realisation that unhealthy workers could not perform as they were driven by social altruism and conscientiousness. We face a similar choice now.
A generation of anxious, depressed millennials will, over time, exact an enormous toll on the health system. They will feel as disconnected from the centres of power in society as they are disconnected from centres of power in their work. All of these factors may eventually drive change for freelance work and may even make the gig economy as we now know it, extinct. In the UK, a bill is before parliament which may change the categories of gig economy workers, and legislators will undoubtedly consider cases like that of Don Lane, who was 53 when he died, reportedly missing appointments because he felt under pressure to complete his rounds for the courier company he worked for, and faced £150 penalties for every day he failed to find cover. Lane, who suffered from diabetes, collapsed at the wheel of his DPD delivery van late last year before dying in hospital in January.
The PR and legal costs of cases such as his may force the hand of gig economy companies even if the UK government doesn't. Our own law makers will do well to take note; the Irish gig economy as it currently exists needs to be killed, before it kills us.