The nature of permanent employment is changing, revolutionized by technology. Is the gig economy here to stay?
In the suburb of Randburg in South Africa, 25-year-old media entrepreneur Zola Brunner is determined to succeed as her own boss. She works as a ‘full-time’ freelancer.
The gig economy is an option she deliberately considered, like many millennials like her.
“I didn’t intend to come into it. It just so happened that I was working at a news organization. I put in all my hours and dedicated my time. You push and push, but it got to a point where I wanted to also do more because I don’t like to stick to one thing or one job,” she says.
While working on a television show for her former employer, she was creating content for two other companies on the side.
“I was able to substitute that income where I was working and focus on the other jobs that I was doing.”
She cites flexibility as a major reason for venturing into freelance work. “It gives me more space and time to manage who I want to work with and what specific project I want to work on. You can also set your time and set your rate. So, for me, it fits into my lifestyle.”
In 2018, Brunner founded Beyond Media for two reasons. One of them was quite unexpected.
“I was working three, four jobs at the time, with different clients, and these clients came from referrals, people requesting and requiring video content for their platforms to disseminate onto social media. These clients wanted to market their product, their organization, and just boost their social media platforms. I was able to assist them with this.
“At that point, I realized there is a set number of referrals I’m getting that need this content, then surely, I’ll be able to do this on a permanent basis because it was getting out of hand. I was getting to a point where I had to make a decision; where I was going to focus on juggling a number of clients or one specific job. I took the first option.”
Brunner says the second reason was the realization that there’s a technology gap and mobile phones are at the forefront. She uses her mobile phone to film and create content for her clients. “My most memorable experience was when I delivered the final product to a satisfied client who was happy. From there, it led to more work, and I realized that I could do it, and I’ll be okay. I’m happy with my decision.”
While Brunner cherishes certain moments as a freelancer, she does face challenges. “Not knowing when to stop because, as an entity, you don’t necessarily have an accounts department, you don’t have a graphics team,you don’t have an HR manager, you become all of that. So, for me, the challenge is when do I stop? You get into a space where you do everything and there is no time clock, there is no 9-to-5. You work on the times when you need to deliver a project. That was problematic because it had an impact on my health. I had to resolve it by taking some time out and working on my time management and my health.”
Brunner sees a future for the gig economy. “The future of work is having the freedom to choose to work remotely or collaborate. It is the freedom to push boundaries and embrace new technologies because it’s ok. It’s how you are going to evolve and stay ahead of your competitors in order to be a success. It is also the freedom to disrupt the system.”
With one powerful brush in her hand, makeup artist Deogracious Dube, 27, works on the faces of clients. Besides referrals, she aggressively uses social media to acquire customers.
Dube previously worked as a makeup artist in a retail store.“I am largely in control of my own time. When I worked for MAC, I had certain hours to keep. I had to plan my life around those hours. As a freelancer, you can schedule how you work. You have time to actually do other things. I didn’t want to be on my feet eight hours a day. I have dreams and plans of starting my own business one day, my own makeup line, or opening my own salon, things like that.”
She speaks about the future of makeup artistry in the gig economy. “Makeup artists used to be in the background but the field is growing and becoming more glamorized and popular, and as a result, more people know about it and we have become more in demand.”
Uber is one of the major players in the gig economy. Their drivers, who are location-based freelancers, get paid for each ‘gig’. One hot Saturday afternoon, as people make their way in and out of a mall in the East Rand outside Johannesburg, Uber driver Donald Beukes waits in his car for his next customer, his eyes fixed on his phone.
“Being unemployed, I couldn’t find a job. I decided to join the Uber team because this was the only place I could actually get a job.”
When asked if he would ever consider returning to a nine-to-five job, he says: “No! I am my own boss. I determine how long I want to work. It actually builds your character. You push yourself if you work for Uber because you want to reach a certain target of money. If you reach your target, you’ll be able to make a living … Depending how much I push myself, I can make roughly R15,000 ($1,040) after paying everything.”
As South Africa is gripped by recession, pay hikes are hard to come by, and food and fuel costs are escalating. Therefore, having a ‘gig’or ‘side hustle’ has become critical for some people.
With the unemployment rate currently at 27.5% and the youth unemployment rate at 52.8%, some respondents we dealt with for this story have come to the realization that dependency on a government dealing with internal issues such as corruption, is no longer an option. This could be one of the many reasons why the gig economy is on the ascent in South Africa.
There is an increase in freelance work as more people opt for self-employment. Work in the gig economy can be web-based (you could work from anywhere) or location-based. Both provide flexible hours and a sense of freedom compared to a traditional job.
According to the Regus Exclusive Economic Survey, “A rise inflexible working also benefits individuals, set to save people 3.53 billion hours of commuting time by 2030. A predicted boom in flexible working could contribute $10.04 trillion to the global economy by 2030”.
Nesan Nair, senior portfolio manager at Sasfin Securities,says the number of platforms for freelancers to get their work to a larger audience are more accessible now, compared to 20 years ago.
“How many people have set up YouTube channels to do basic things? Baking a cake, for example, then they get people to subscribe and then they can sell advertising on that channel. It’s not a question of standing on a street corner and getting 1,000 people to come and view your product.
“We’re talking about millions and billions of people that can access what you have to say in a cheap and efficient manner. Look at Facebook users, for example; close to two billion people access the platform. If you can get your work on there and get a small percentage of people that understand what you’re doing, and if you’ve got a value proposition that makes sense and people are interested in, you can have a very successful launch in a matter of weeks.”
But while the benefits of the gig economy include freedom and flexibility, there’s a major downside to it, lack of security one of them.
“I know if I want to get a home loan, it’s going to be a little bit tricky because I don’t have a permanent job,” says Brunner.
“I don’t have fears when I reach my pension because I am putting aside money. It’s obviously not the same compared to a company that puts the money aside for you and you can’t touch it until you retire or until you leave,” says Dube.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution could disrupt the job market as technology threatens to replace a number of traditional jobs. There’s an alarming rate of retrenchments and job cuts in the formal sector and people may be forced to enter the gig economy.
According to Statistics South Africa, businesses in the country currently use 14% of total spend on their employees. These employment costs consist of salaries and wages, bonuses, pension, benefits, life insurance benefits, medical aid, and other employee-related costs. Businesses looking to offer freelance positions to lower company costs will mean more people will have the opportunity to take on more than one job at a time.
“A lot of people will start working for themselves. At the moment, we’ve got women drivers who are driving for themselves. It just shows that it’s not a male-dominated business, women are also coming in.,” says Beukes.
“A lot of people are realizing the economy is so unstable,and you can’t really rely on a job. People are getting retrenched, the world is changing, and traditional jobs are not what they were, say 10 years ago. You can’t rely on one salary as much as you think you can.
New jobs are also being created these days which were not around, say, even as little as five years ago. The job market is changing.
“A lot of people are really talented. They’ve got so many talents. You can be an accountant but you’re talented at organizing things or planning events, so you do events management on the weekend, or plan parties… There’s more to life than just one job. We’re all very multi-dimensional,” says Dube.
Nadir Thokan, an investment analyst for 27Four, says that ultimately it’s about productivity. “If people can be more productive freelancing, then that’s the way we’re going to be migrating towards. If we’re more productive by being a contractual employee, then that’s what you’re going to do. It also speaks on people’s risk appetite.
“Ultimately, you have to have a higher risk appetite in order to be a freelancer because you don’t have the stability of a monthly cheque, but it can be more financially rewarding over the long-term if you become very good at freelancing because your time becomes your own and you can work for multiple sources and that can be financially rewarding for you.”
Is the gig economy here to stay? “In the space where it can create employment, I think it will definitely disrupt the South African industry and it’s definitely here to stay, for example, the way Uber has revolutionized how people travel in South Africa has been phenomenal. The reality of the matter is that it is more cost-effective than a normal taxi(metered cab) and it’s creating employment, so those kinds of disruptions that are positive, and make people’s lives easier are here to stay.
In addition to growing the economy and improving the absorption rate into the formal sector,maybe we’ve got to rethink the way we create employment. Freelancing could definitely be one way we could reduce the number of unemployed people over time,” says Thokan.
Adds Nair: “Younger people, because of their nature, are more adventurous. They don’t buy cars, they Uber. They don’t buy houses, they Airbnb. It’s almost a different mind-set that they have in life. They don’t want to acquire assets, they want to acquire experiences… Younger people want to explore their own ideas, their own ambitions and the technological environment right now affords them that opportunity more than any point in history we’ve seen before.”
The only option then for Africa Inc. may be to consider changing mind-sets and redraft the employment rule book.