July 05, 2019

Credit: Kelly Girl ad, Time Magazine, 1965

*This piece was originally published on October 26th, 2018.

When you hear the term “gig economy,” you probably think of Uber or Lyft or Postmates - companies that have used apps to disrupt industries and create an army of 1099 workers. But according to Louis Hyman, a Cornell University historian and author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, the gig economy is a lot bigger than Silicon Valley. And it has a much longer history than you might think. 

Three Takeaways:

  • Hyman says that “the corporation was reorganized sometime between 1970 and 1980, in a new way that created more insecure lives for the rest of us. And Uber is the waste product of that service economy. It’s only possible because the rest of our work lives at Starbucks and Walmart are so bad.”
  • He believes that technology isn’t the sole driver of change - it may not even be the main driver. Apps didn’t cause the gig economy, and mechanized looms didn’t cause the industrial revolution. According to Hyman, the industrial revolution was preceded by the industrious revolution, a social reorganization of people, which involved groups working together in small spaces, dividing up tasks so that each laborer didn’t have to be as skilled.
  • Hyman makes the point that the origins of what we think of as the gig economy took root in the post-WWII landscape. Companies like Manpower, Inc. and Kelly Girl provided temporary labor (mostly women, mostly secretaries) to corporations looking to fill gaps in their workforce.

More Reading:

  • Hyman lumps a lot of jobs into the gig economy: farm laborers, mercenaries and even management consultants. Here’s a history of McKinsey and Company in Longreads.
  • The Brookings Institute offers a proposal to rethink worker benefits for the gig economy.
  • Vox takes a look at why the gig economy continues to expand.

economy, Uber, Gig economy, Louis Hyman, Sci and Tech

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