A lot of people associate the gig economy with companies like Uber or Task Rabbit, but the truth is gigs have been around for a long time, said Marion McGovern, author of “Thriving in the Gig Economy.” A gig, by definition, is just work of a certain duration for multiple clients. A lot of people participate in the gig economy. And the biggest demographic of all is baby boomers.
They make up a large share of the independent workforce, said McGovern, and tend to be more skilled at the work, compensated better than their younger counterparts and more satisfied with their jobs. Many of them are on the higher-paying end of the spectrum, like corporate executives who choose to start consulting clients rather than retire, and others are on the lower-earning end, like those who walk dogs or drive. McGovern spoke with Workforce Associate Editor Andie Burjek about the growth of independent boomer workers.
Workforce: What are the major differences baby boomers would find from working a regular 40-hour week to working in the gig economy?
Marion McGovern: This would be true for anyone in the gig economy, but [it might be] more true for boomers than millennials, especially if they’ve been an employee for a long amount of time. There is an aspect [of employment] that you do what your boss says. You might have a particular set of responsibilities, and if your boss says, “I know you’re working on that report, but I need you to do X today,” you do that. If you are an independent worker and you have a consultant project, and your client says, “I know you’re working on this project but I really would like you to do this today,” you can’t do that. That’s potentially out of the scope of what you’ve been contracted to deliver. Most people have been so trained to do whatever the person in authority says to do, that they may not question it. Saying no in this business can be hard for some people. That’s something people have to be crystal clear about.
There’s also the isolation factor. It’s different being part of a work environment and then being on your own. Yes, maybe you are going into your client’s office, but you are not part of that group. You are an outsider. For some people they need to create more opportunities to have that camaraderie, whether that’s joining a professional organization or making sure you have lunch with colleagues and potential clients, to create more of an interpersonal dimension to what is often a very isolated job.
WF: A recent study found that full-time employees remain in their roles because they prioritize job security the most, not benefits. Are employers giving baby boomers adequate job security in the gig economy?
McGovern: It’s a different sort of security. There are all sorts of studies on the gig economy because there’s no government data. In all these studies, they ask people why they are working this way. Some people call it flexibility, but I call it control. They want control over when they work, the type of work they do and for whom they work. That control is more important than job security, if you will. One of the studies, the MBO Partners study, started in 2011. They ask, “Is working independently as financially secure as having a regular job?” In the original study, something like 19 percent said it was just as secure. In the study last year, that number was 49 percent. 49 percent thought that working independently was as financially secure as working for a company. Still a minority, but, hey, what a jump in seven years!
You can be let go at any point in time from a company. They could decide to shut down your division, merge operations somewhere else, whatever it is. At least you’re in control of your own destiny if you’re an independent.
WF: What resources are available for employers to find retired baby boomers looking for contract work?
McGovern: When I [worked on] the book, I joined all sort of talent platforms just to get a sense of the experience. I don’t think a lot of them were attuned to older workers. There was one where they vetted people as good consultants by virtue of the business school they went to, and you had to join with your business school email at the time. I sent them a polite message saying, “When I went to business school, email wasn’t invented. But I’m sure you don’t want to discriminate against older MBAs.” and I immediately got a response back that wasn’t boiler plate.
So, my age group wasn’t applying on that platform and no one on that platform was over 40. No one had figured out this could be a problem. A lot of sites are not necessarily focused on the boomer generation, which isn’t to say you can’t join them anyway.
There are industry ways, like a lot of companies keep track of their own alumni. Some find their retirees [contract work] like that.
There are some staffing companies that go after this in a big way, especially in the aerospace world. A lot of aerospace defense contractors, for example, have enforced retirement. There’s one staffing company that’s sort of known for watching as somebody [retires], and they would turn around and get that person as a staffing contractor who could be used at the same company. Because no one’s got the experience of that person.
WF: Do you have anything else to add that is valuable to this topic?
A lot of people, especially boomers, will be independent consultants and work gig to gig, but they won’t identify themselves as part of the gig world. They are more of the people who have been out doing this for a long time. They’re not necessarily working through a Catalant or a Zintro. They’re getting gigs on their own reputation and years of business development. To the extent that so many people present the gig economy as [something that] has to be through a platform, a lot of people don’t self-identify.
Andie Burjek is an associate editor with Workforce. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.