Unemployment's down but something's up: Welcome to the Gig Economy

Washington extended benefits to the jobless this week, prompting many unemployed folks to do a happy dance. It's been a frustrating few weeks to get to this point, and one of the things that almost derailed the measure was when unemployment statistics were released. They showed that unemployment rates in most states fell in June, fueling the venom among those disinclined to extend benefits to the jobless. Fewer people unemployed? Is that right?

According to the experts, it isn't that more people have jobs -- it's that fewer people are still looking for work. Apparently if you aren't looking for a job, the government doesn't consider you unemployed.

The insanity of this logic is that people must obviously do something to avoid living in their cars -- and what they are doing is working in the "gig economy." Instead of jobs, we now get gigs. Part-time work in our chosen fields where employers pay us by the hour, the shift, the legal case, the word, the blog post -- and that's all we get: the pay. Health benefits, paid vacations, sick leave, and pensions have no place in the new gig world order.
The gig economy, by the way, is flourishing -- growing daily. And why not? From an employer's perspective, giggers are cheap labor because you don't have to pay them benefits and you only use them when you have a need. It kind of sounds like a world without unions, doesn't it? Which isn't far from the truth.

But the government has no interest in counting giggers when it tries to figure out how many Americans are unemployed. Much has been written about how the unemployment numbers would actually be higher -- and truer -- if those who have abandoned hope of finding a full-time job and joined the ranks of the gig economy got counted.

Take the case of Debbie J. Smith of Orange County, Calif. She's been laid off from three jobs in 18 months. Her first layoff was from her long-time job as an operations manager for an equipment leasing company at the same time she was short-selling her house. Being an optimist, she saw it as an opportunity to try something new, so she relocated herself to Colorado, thinking the job market there beat Southern California.

But five months later, she was back home, concluding that the ability to network among friends and former colleagues was too valuable to dismiss. She took a job in tech sales, only to be let go five weeks later. They told her they had been premature in creating her job and the company just wasn't on sufficiently solid financial ground to expand yet. Six months after that, she was hired to handle client relations and marketing for a real estate company. But cutbacks there in May meant she again fell to the axe.

What does the 40-year-old woman do now to pay her bills? She works four nights a week in a wine bar as a server and picks up income doing some freelance writing -- 20 cents a word, or $150 an article, whichever is less. She also is doing event planning for a nonprofit. Once the event is over in October, she's unsure what will happen.

None of these gigs promise a career track position. And none of them offer anything except money. She bought herself an individual health insurance policy that won't cover anything for six months. When the dog scratched her eye and she drove herself to the emergency room, she wondered if this would result in financial ruin.

"This isn't how I envisioned my life," she said. "I always thought I'd have a great job, own a nice house, feel secure financially. I have none of that. Gigs don't give you any of that."

But apparently, gigs represent the way of the future. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which prefers to call you a consultant when the company that fired you now wants you back on a freelance basis, estimates that between 2008 and 2018, jobs in management, financial and scientific consulting will grow a whooping 83%. That makes it the fastest-growing sector that the BLS tracks.

Consulting certainly goes hand-in-hand with the trends in wireless technology that enable people to work remotely and never actually have to see the boss. Some call it the Pajama Generation, because we amble out of bed in the morning in our PJs and fire up the Mac -- waiting for the economy to awaken from its deep, dreamless sleep.
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