How To Succeed As A Millennial In The Gig Economy

Adam Winfield

Millennials face a very different job market than the one in which Boomers and older Generation Xers have spent much of their working lives. Some 45 percent of Canada’s workforce will consist of freelancers, contractors, and on-demand workers by 2020 (a statistic that would likely be similar in other developed economies), an Intuit Canada research study noted in January.

One reason for millennials’ shift away from the one-job-for-life mentality is employers’ increasing unwillingness to play by the rules of the 1970s labor market. They’ve seen the scalability and efficiency offered by contract-based workforces, and now they have the digital tools and network connectivity to effectively manage such operations.

Another reason is that some self-directed millennials are taking advantage of project-based job platforms, online retail platforms, and other tools to make a living. Others work for companies in a more traditional sense as freelancers or contractors but keep their tribal connection to any one business at arm’s length.

Whatever the route, more than two-thirds of all self-employed workers have no intention of returning to traditional employment, according to a survey released two weeks ago by FreshBooks. All this change is causing many millennials to view work through a new lens.

Limits of flexibility

The biggest difference between younger and older workers seems to be how highly millennials value flexibility, which appears to contradict their desire for the income stability their parents had. Some 57 percent of millennials see not having a predictable income as their biggest challenge, according to a 2015 MBO Partners survey.

Income stability is a high priority because we all need proof of employment for a lease, and income to pay our bills — whether or not we’re proud members of the gig economy (a labor market full of temporary and freelance workers as opposed to permanent jobs).

Even those who still enjoy a predictable income today – especially those deriving it from rote work – could eventually find robotic automation dragging them into the gig economy. Some workers are at a 98 percent risk of their jobs being automated, according to a 2016 Brookfield Institute report.

The ultimate training toolbox

But millennials can view the gig economy as a saving grace. Wage-earning is undergoing a major shakeup, thanks to on-demand work.

Technology allows young workers to be productive from anywhere, and on their own schedule. They don’t need a cubicle and a 9-to-5 job to be successful; they have the Internet.

The Internet makes it easy to download tutorials, watch clips, and connect with others, enabling workers to continue growing professionally and increasing their value to the economy. A freelance lifestyle can mean more openness to learning and building skills. The Web only enhances that.

But a life of unpredictable income is not for everyone, and it’s not a model that applies to every kind of work. Indeed, our future may be tiny permanent workforces that manage large contract workforces, according to TechCrunch. Predictable income will still exist; it’ll just be harder to come by.

Finding your balance

For everyone else, succeeding in the gig economy means more than simply using sites like Fiverr and Elance to work 100-hour weeks on low-paying gigs. That path goes against the idea of building skills that organizations genuinely value and will always pay fairly for.

People willing to step outside the predictable income comfort zone will have abundant opportunity to generate a good living. Consider that salaried employees are often creatively stunted by the daily grind, demotivated because their paycheck is already guaranteed, and disengaged from their work, according to a Gallup report last year.

Employers have clocked onto this, realizing that on-demand or contract hiring is a more effective way of getting certain things done. It allows organizations to be leaner and more responsive to market forces by building workforces motivated by the uncertainty of short-term contracts and engaged by the more direct purposefulness of specific skills-based projects.

This means people who can do work that is difficult to replicate – tasks that require long-term training, skill, concentration, and intelligence – will increase in worth to companies looking for the real value-drivers in a sea of email- and social media-addicted drones, according to computer science professor Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.

My challenge to millennials is to embrace this trend. Steady jobs will be in short supply, but that’s fine. With self-discipline and self-development, an on-demand, freelance, or contract career can provide money, fulfillment, and work-life balance.

For more insight on business strategies in the gig economy, see The Convergence Of HR And Procurement In The Gig Economy.


About Adam Winfield

Adam Winfield writes about technology, how it's affecting industries, how it's affecting businesses, and how it's affecting people.