Combining dog walking and freelancing is the way I get by in a gig economy

There was a time when people could finish school, go to university and get a good job that would last until retirement. These days, the gig economy has put that kind of stability increasingly out of reach for many people, including me.

Stability increasingly out of reach for all except a few people

This is not what Susan Huebert had in mind when she studied librarianship. (CBC)

According to rumour, there was a time when people could finish school, perhaps go to university or some other training program and get a good job that would last until retirement.

These days, the gig economy has put that kind of stability increasingly out of reach for all except a few people.

When I lived in Egypt some time ago, I spent the first year teaching English, the second year doing a combination of tutoring, transcribing videos, and other tasks, and the last two years working in a school library while also writing for a travel magazine. Little did I know that I was at the cutting edge of the phenomenon called the gig economy.

At the beginning of August, the news came out that drivers from Skip the Dishes were launching a lawsuit against their employer over their designation as independent contractors rather than part-time employees eligible for benefits. Their struggle is all too common these days.

In a 2015 article, "Rise of the Precariate," Brian Stewart wrote about how few working-age people actually had full-time jobs; only one in four had the luxury of working in secure jobs that allowed them to plan for the future, while the number of jobless in the world passed 200 million.  

The situation has not improved much since then, with far too many people struggling.

Downsizing, moving jobs offshore and the relentless push for corporate profits have led to a situation where workers cannot count on a decent job, with predictable social and emotional results.

Education key?

My own job losses have been devastating.

When I was in school, I was told education was the key to a good career and a stable life. I enjoyed my undergraduate studies and was glad I had followed the advice of practically every adult in my life and entered post-secondary education. 

Although I had a fairly miserable experience with graduate studies (including difficulties getting the work experience I needed), I thought I could count on working in the librarianship career I had spent a great deal of money, time and mental energy on.

After a short-term job in Vancouver, I went north to work at a public library, only to find the job entailed more babysitting than actual library work.

The next two jobs ended badly, and with libraries overwhelmed with far more qualified applicants than available jobs, I have become a freelancer.

Walking dogs has become a part of my daily routine, a task that often takes as much time in transportation as in actual work. The dogs themselves are fun, and my frequent pet-sitting jobs are enjoyable as I get to spend time with animals without having full-time responsibility for them.

As a freelancer, I write on a regular basis for some children's and youth publications, I have had pieces published online and in print on all kinds of different topics, and I edit a variety of documents.

Depleted social skills

Versatility is an essential trait among those in the gig economy, as people move from one job to another or patch several different jobs into one. Yet that capacity to move quickly from one job to another can jeopardize the deep skills needed for more stable work, and even deplete social skills.

The lack of a regular, predictable income, and the nature of gig economy work — being alone or with animals much of the time — have made it difficult for me to maintain much interest in being sociable or settling down.

Other unemployed or underemployed people I have met live in similar situations, even if the details differ. 

We need to try new ways to deal with these economic difficulties. A guaranteed annual income, job-sharing, balancing the number of people accepted into training programs against the number of available positions and making job creation a higher priority than balancing the books could all help.

Regular, full-time jobs and stable communities were once normal in Canada. If people come together to support workers and end the gig economy, we might be able to bring back the best of that era.       

Canadians can do better than the gig economy.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer with published articles for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.