Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Gig Economy and the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………"

A lot of talk lately about the GIG Economy - defined here in this Newsday piece as:

"The rise of the "gig economy" -- the world of part-time, freelance, contingent workers such as Uber car drivers or contract software engineers -- threatens to supplant an earlier model, in which long-term, stable employment with a single company was the norm."
The article goes on:

"Contingent workers" now account for about 40.4 percent of the workforce, up from 30.6 percent in 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office. This trend arguably began sometime in the late 1990s, especially in the so-called New Economy.
It intensified with the last recession. Indeed, the vast majority of new jobs being created are contingent, temporary gigs -- precisely the opposite of what happened in the 1990s.
This new face of labor is anxiety-producing, but there's not much new about it. In fact, the replacement of steady jobs by unpredictable gigs marks a return to what passed for normal for most of U.S. history. The gig economy was the economy."

Indeed, the Gig Economy has been the economic reality of artists forever - artists who go from commission to commission, patron to patron, season to season, festival to festival, play to play, writing assignment to writing assignment and from one entrepreneurial attempt to another.  This is how artists have long attempted to make a living, and it is the economic model for most artists still.  For the rest of society, it is only in the last fifty years that the dominant economic model has included job security as a fundamental core of the mix.

The current iteration of the Gig Economy has risen as companies seek to reduce their costs to maintain competitiveness and to maximize their profits.  And at stake is a hefty 30% or more in cost savings if a company can avoid expenses like medical benefits, payroll taxes, and more by classifying workers not as full time employees, but as independent contractors.  Companies like AirBnB  and Uber are at the forefront of moving from having employees, to having contract workers.

While there are advantages to being a Gig worker (flexible time, independence, better work / life balance et. al), the problem of job security and adequate pay has resulted in serious reservations about, and attacks of all kinds on, the advance (or is it resurrection) of a Gig Economy. And it is those attacks, particularly the legal attacks that go to the heart of defining what constitutes an "employee",  that threaten the growth and long term viability of the economy moving towards job contingency as the dominant new norm.  Some companies have eschewed the Gig Economy approach because they want to (again for competitive reasons) be able to train their workers; they want to be able control more of how a worker does the required work, rather than just with the outcome of that work -- thus being able to insure that the customer experience with their product or service is quality controlled.  Other companies have resisted classifying all but their executive management team as 'employees', and arguably their bottom line shareholder value is at stake in the decision to define their workers as contingent or contract.

It remains whether or not the Gig Economy will be the mainstay in the coming decades.  We don't yet know - though the trend is gaining.

Artists remain pretty firmly entrenched as contract workers - with some of the advantages, but most of the negatives associated with being in the Gig Economy.  There are some areas in which artists have moved to being employees with the attendant benefits, but often little of the real security.  Some dancers for example are now employees during a Company's season, but only for the season (which is often very short) and classified as part time employees at best.  The same may be true for theater actors and workers, and musicians and others in our field.  If some are fortunate to have some of the advantages of being employees, often that designation is, at best, short term and / or  seasonal.

Compounding this whole subject is the technological revolution in robotics, as business and industry move to replace human beings with machines for any growing number of jobs - and thus making the employee / contractor conundrum non existent as machines don't yet have rights.  Not likely to happen in the arts?  Well, that's not entirely clear.  Recently there was news about a robot performing an opera, so the issue of machines replacing artists may not be as fantasy like and far-fetched as we might imagine, and though I think it easy to make a convincing argument that we are a long way from even sophisticated AI machines being able to replicate the 'soul' of human creativity, nonetheless the door is open.

And what about us? What about the arts administrator / manager field.  Are we immune to the Gig Economic pressures of moving from being employees to contract workers?  Will the pressures on our organizations to cut costs, save money and become more efficient so as to remain viable as organizations, make it more  likely that we will move to replace some of our full time "employees" with contract workers?   There have been suggestions in the past that we combine certain back office functions (e.g., accounting, payroll taxes, etc) so as to benefit from economies of scale, and outsource certain of these jobs because we would save money, and the tasks don't necessarily have any direct link with the creativity we espouse and which is central to our missions anyway.  If that makes sense, then why not outsource other of our jobs to contract workers if by doing so we could save money, and arguably get good results?  What about fundraising and development, or marketing for example?  And how long will it really be before machines can do virtually all of the secretarial / go-fer kind of work?

With the coming exodus of baby boomer arts administrators, many with volumes of experience and high levels of expertise - and many of whom either have to, or want to, continue to work in the field in some capacity, will we see an enormous new class of consultants that will fuel the supply of contract workers for the nonprofit arts field.  And with this new pool of readily available seasoned and qualified veterans (at arguably less expenditure than younger full time arts managers), will we move more towards the Gig Economy for arts administration?

While there are strong arguments to have the spontaneity of creative minds working in the same place at the same time to give rise to those 'aha' moments where new ideas are born, technology and global access to instant interface makes virtual same place, same time reality almost as good.  And if the tradeoff is for productivity at less cost - that's going to be a hard argument to overcome.

One might make the case that for us such a move would be immoral in some way.  And at least unfair to those coming up through the ranks.   But even if that were true on a human level, on the organization level would it not be irresponsible to ignore a move that would benefit the organization and thus, in the end, the mission itself?  And might not the savings of moving to a Gig approach, be of enormous value to our organizations - including having the work that needs to be done, done well - at less cost?

What I am suggesting is that as a topic, this one isn't necessarily all black and white and easy to decide - given the imperfect world we find ourselves in, and the daunting challenges we face to survive.  And factoring into the decision are issues as lofty as what is the right thing to do, to the more mundane practical considerations of how do we survive otherwise?

All of this is, of course, an unsettling move in the already disconcerting concentration of wealth from a widespread middle class to the top one percent.  Ultimately what is at stake is the organization of human life into systems that allow for equity and value across the board.  But that's big picture stuff.  For the moment, the Gig Economy presents more real threats, challenges, perhaps opportunities and certainly questions - for artists, for arts administrators, for arts organizations -- for everyone.  For artists, all of this has been part of their existence for some time.  For arts administrators, much of what might come to pass will be new and even unexpected.

We shouldn't ignore this.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.