Streams

Episode #78

A Labor Revolution or a Return to Serfdom: Could You Thrive in the Gig Economy?

« previous episode | next episode »

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Freelance nation. Micro-work. The gig economy. Call it what you like, it's growing. But can you really make a living taking one-off jobs from websites like TaskRabbit or Fiverr? Fast Company writer Sarah Kessler gave it a try for one month and told us her story. She discovered that the labor revolution these tech companies promise only serves a very particular kind of worker... one who appreciates inconsistent and sometimes weird jobs and prioritizes pants-free mornings over health insurance and the minimum wage. 

Plus, New Tech City has been experimenting with hiring people via the gig economy. Let us know in the comments section below if you like any of the new logos we commissioned from a graphic designer on Fiverr, where everything costs about $5. Or, did we just get what we paid for? We also want to hear your story of working in for websites like these, especially if it's different than the examples we cite.

    Music Playlist
  1. Parrots
    Artist: Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
  2. WWAD
    Artist: Nicholas Rod
  3. Naugahyde
    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt
  4. Stumble On Home
    Artist: Justin Asher

The Morning Brief

Enter your email address and we’ll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.

Comments [18]

Chris Hutchings from Los Angeles

Having bounced through the film and television animation world for a few years, I was finally rattled out completely when the stereoscopic conversion market (converting 2D footage to 3D) went almost entirely offshore (or to huge slave wage factories in the Valley). I saw the layoff coming and started shooting out offers for freelance work. Part of that effort was through sites like TaskRabbit.

I quickly found out that most of the people I'm competing with on TaskRabbit were doing what I do for pennies on the dollar (most of whom were not here in the US). I gave up even browsing their job lists. I was fortunate that I was able to quickly build a stable of reliable clients that pay me the best hourly wage I've ever made in my life - so shed no tears for me unless you want to talk taxes or retirement. (I desperately miss accountants taking care of my payroll for me...)

Before animation and motion graphics, I used webdesign as income spackle in my periods of unemployment when I worked as a production assistant. I learned there are mostly two kinds of clients in the freelance webdesign world: No budget clients that are used to getting a lot of spec work for free and low budget clients who used to be no budget clients until the neighbor kid they used all the time finally left for college.

These super cheap low-bid freelance sites are welcome to have those clients. They're awful. The cheaper things were, they more they demanded of me. I think low budget freelance gigging is filling a niche by siphoning off the vast array of clients that resent paying professional rates anyway. When they get tired of asking for dozens of changes from a $5 vendor... they know where they can find me.

Mar. 27 2014 10:31 PM

<sarcasm pct=.50> Just what the advent of ultra-cheap telecommunications was meant to do. Allow English-speaking South Asians and Chinese to compete with Westerners for design and coding work! </sarcasm>

The problem is, of course, the vastly different prices for goods and services purchased with wages in the respective cultures. If U.S. code-monkeys could get their meals at Mumbai prices and the housing at Delhi rates, we might have something going on...But all I see is a race to the bottom.

Mar. 22 2014 02:25 PM
rick from SC

I felt sad when I listened to this piece, for all the US workers who get beaten down in this economy and "gig" work. Not only are people taking advantage of the job seekers they contribute to the large population of low or no wage families.

While your piece was locally oriented (for the most part) the same "gig" mentality has happened in the programming tech business. Now US based programmers are competing against the world where I have seen jobs that would take anyone one or two months to create and only offer $ 100.00 for the job. And you know what... some one in the middle or far east will take the job. We in the US have to compete against $ 8.00 an hour programming jobs.. Which you cannot do.

Mar. 20 2014 10:23 AM
Solomon from Cuyahoga County, OH

Not really a fan of any of the logos you got out of this. But thanks for the story. I'm going to try Mechanical Turk now!

Mar. 19 2014 05:04 PM

To everyone worried we're going to change our logo to one of these $5 jobs...

We do like to pay a fair wage for quality work. And if we used any of these, we'd also want to contract the designer for a lot more than just that one image, outside of Fiverr.

But we also like to try out new technology and explore the moral questions raised by new marketplace enabled by those new technologies. It sounds like this is a topic people might want to hear a show about. Yes? No?

Mar. 19 2014 03:53 PM
unEmployed Carpenter from NYC

Listen to ur piece about the sad state of affairs in todays "freelance/gig" job market here, in the NYC / Metro area.
You end it with telling us how YOU outsourced work you had, to come up with a new logo! What??
Plenty of artists in the NY/ Metro area that gig coulda gone to !! Hire "out of work" New Yorkers / Americans !!

Mar. 19 2014 03:53 PM

Joan, we have done other stories on how technology is changing the freelance economy.

There's this one about some of the people earning big bucks and asking if they should be paying more taxes.
http://www.wnyc.org/story/freelance-nation-greatest-economic-transformation-human-history/

Mar. 19 2014 03:48 PM
lesterine from manhattan

perhaps the money saved on a $5 logo will compensate the loss of listener contributions for utilizing such services.

Mar. 19 2014 03:38 PM
Joan from New Jersey

Depressing. Is there no more positive story to tell about the role of technology in the freelance economy? So many of us are headed for the designation of full-time temp labor with the loss of permanent jobs from the market and the trend toward staffing with contractors. Does it all eventually boil down to devaluing work and people to this extent - where freelance workers compete for sub-poverty pay - sometimes at a global level (as in the Fiverr example - or on any "design auction" crowdsourcing site)? Doesn't seem like a sustainable model for most economies.

Mar. 19 2014 01:25 PM
Cara Mc from New York, NY

I was really curious about how hard it would be to make a living doing taskrabbit stuff. Sounds like I shouldn't quit my day job or tell my unemployed spouse this is viable.

While I'm developing a blog and would love free or cheap graphic design help, I do wish I was in a position to help pay someone a good fee, because it seems like almost an unavoidable trap in some fields to have do free or cheap work to build a portfolio only to find it a battle to get decent earnings when dues are paid. Am I a chump if I tried to find a contact through Fiverr, only to then say I'd actually try and pay more like $40 for good work?

I vote for the orange logo. For $5 a logo, these look pretty decent.

Mar. 19 2014 01:17 PM
Sarah Kessler from New York

Julie and Alan, I think there are many designers who would agree with you that it is frustrating to see design jobs on sites like Fiverr. Here's one blog post that I thought articulated the feeling well: http://idsgn.org/posts/crowdsourcing-sabotaging-our-value/

Though I focused mostly on unskilled labor during my time in the gig economy, there's clearly another layer of debate when it comes to putting professional skills on these platforms.

Mar. 19 2014 12:00 PM
Chris from New York City

After seeing my boyfriend's TaskRabbit experience in 2013, I thought today's report was a bit too upbeat. He spent a lot of time bidding for handyman jobs as this was his primary income for a while. This meant back-and-forth emails when uninformed task givers didn't provide enough information about the work/objects/time involved, and too often the task went to the lowest bidder, especially for skilled work. TaskRabbit automatically charges the job-giver a 20% fee on the price given for the job, so it is added to the "total price" that is bid. At one point the math was wrong; the automated system tacked 25%, upping the bid the job giver was considering. He contacted the company and I'm sure they fixed it, but it's surprising this automated feature about $ was miscalculated. My boyfriend ended up having a long phone discussion with a TaskRabbit person about how the site/service might work better and was told he would be paid for his helpful feedback at something more than $20 an hour. That never happened and he was also locked out of TaskRabbit despite good, starred reviews for his work. There was no response to his queries as to why he couldn't "be a TaskRabbit" any more.

Mar. 19 2014 08:22 AM
Alan Barnett from New York City

You got what you paid for. And worse, New Tech City and the person who accepted the assignment are bringing down the market for those who make their living as creative professionals. I don't expect that for five dollars the designer could apply the resources necessary to comprehend the project enough to execute a relevant and meaningful logo. Did the designer have an in-depth conversation with you to understand your goals, your audience, your reason for wanting a new logo? Did you discuss your larger brand and how the logo will be used within it? Did the designer then research the marketplace to determine how your competitors and collaborators apply their branding? To do this well and then turn it into a great logo takes not only far more than five dollars worth of time, but it takes years of experience beforehand.

Often young designers will work for low pay to develop a portfolio, but then they fall into the trap of not getting higher paid work because of the precedent they set of working for less. And the client who is not willing to pay for an experienced designer loses too, with branding that will not speak well to their audience. Everyone loses. If you wouldn't hire a dentist on Fiverr, why would you hire another professional and expect professional-quality work?

Mar. 19 2014 08:20 AM
Andy from Putnam County, NY

Of these four, I like the simplest one, the one with the orange/brown letters, best. --You could experiment with the color of the letters (or adjust it for context, where it's used.)

Mar. 19 2014 08:16 AM

The only thing I can't understand is why fiver, taskrabbit, etc. would base their business on charging a percentage of each gig, even as the pay of their gigs is exponentially reduced. They should charge a flat monthly fee to the local idiots (or increasingly offshore kids-- google "Target Photoshop Fail") willing to work for these wages.

Mar. 19 2014 08:10 AM

Your "gig economy" success story earns 35K a year (after taxes, I'm sure) for doing $20-$80 an hour work full time, during your peak money making years?

Yep, sounds like the traditional NPR MBA program.

Mar. 19 2014 08:06 AM
julie from New York, NY

I listened to the show and there was a part where you mention posting the graphic design job on Fiverr... you say it is, "almost unfair" to pay an artist five dollars to create a logo. ALMOST? It is incredibly unfair. Sites like these are diminishing and devaluing the work we all do. It is insane. How can we negotiate what we pay people down to practically nothing? Does anyone value work anymore?

Mar. 19 2014 08:04 AM
Auntie

All are surprisingly good. I work with a nonprofit who had a competition for a new logo and most were dreadful.

Mar. 19 2014 08:03 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.