We used to think of work as a 9-to-5 shift in one job at the employer's place of business. But today, more and more of us participate in what management and organizational scholar Lindsey Cameron of the University of Michigan calls “alternative work arrangements.” In the 2017 Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, she and her coauthors argue that although this new style of working can offer a net benefit for highly skilled workers, it can often lead to exploitation for the rest of the labor force.

Knowable caught up with Cameron — who trained as an engineer and spent ten years as an intelligence analyst in the Middle East, Europe and Africa before studying management — as she was attending a meditation retreat in California. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you mean by “alternative work arrangements”?

I think it’s easier to describe this in terms of what it is not: It’s work that does not occur with a lifelong employment contract, like what your parents may have had at General Motors. Often, there is the expectation that it does not occur at the firm's place of business, and that you’re not working standard 9-to-5 hours. Those are the three components.

What drew you to study this topic?

My mom lost her job in the great recession, like so many people. We’re from the South Side of Chicago. She had an associate's degree, and that was a respectable path to the middle class for a black woman in the 1970s. But after losing her job as a supervisor at a call center in her mid-50s, she could not find similar regular employment. I watched her, over the next six years, bounce around from gig job to gig job. She sold jewelry and hot dogs. She was a picker at a warehouse, working a midnight shift from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and she was 55. I was drawn to this topic by watching my mother go through it.

The gig economy is growing. A bar chart shows how the percentage of US workers in alternative work arrangements has risen steadily over the last few decades, among them independent contractors, on-call workers without regular hours, temp-agency workers, and contract workers hired for specific, time-limited jobs.
The number of workers in alternative work arrangements is growing dramatically. Such workers include independent contractors, on-call workers without regular hours, temp-agency workers, and contract workers hired for specific, time-limited jobs.

How common is this alternative type of work?

Oh my goodness, the estimates vary so wildly. They’re anywhere from 15 to 60 percent of the work force. The 60 percent includes people who might be moonlighters, people who telecommute, anyone on that continuum. Everyone is trying to get a number on it, and the number doesn't exist.

This sort of work is more common in Europe and Canada than in the US. Why?

In other countries, there's a broader social net, so there's more flexibility for people to do independent contracting assignments because they know they’ll be able to get health care. The US and Turkey are the only places where our social benefits are tied to having standard employment relationships.

When you think of the economies of Africa and South America, everybody is doing this micro-entrepreneurship, hustling work. I lived in the developing world for many years. Everybody’s selling something, or offering some sort of service, whether it’s doing hair or selling soap or being a distributor for some larger company, and it all falls under alternative work arrangements. I definitely feel the United States is on the low end of people who are engaged in this type of arrangement.

The gig economy is nothing new. Painting of a market scene, 1438. National Library, Prague, Czech Republic
The gig economy is nothing new: Painting of a market scene, 1438. National Library, Prague, Czech Republic.


You’ve said this is a growing sector of the global economy. What’s driving that growth?

I think the fundamental reason is economic efficiency. The goal of a publicly traded firm is shareholder value, so they’re looking for ways to minimize costs and outsource costs that are expensive. With the rise of technology, it’s possible to have more work done outside the traditional bounds of organizations, which lowers costs. You need less physical space, you don’t have to pay for benefits, you don’t have to pay for a manager to supervise staff.

That’s the main impetus. And there’s a minor one about people wanting more control of their work, wanting to have more autonomy, to be able to control their work activity.

That autonomy makes alternative work arrangements sound like a good thing, because it can offer more freedom to balance work with a more meaningful life outside of work. Is that what we see in reality?

A graph shows the rise in percentage of Americans who have ever worked from home. Back in the mid-1990s, telecommuting was rare, but by 2015, more than a third of all workers had telecommuted at least some of the time.
Back in the mid-1990s, telecommuting was a rarity in the world of work, with only 9% of workers ever having done it. Just 20 years later, more than a third of all US workers have telecommuted at least some of the time. Data are from a 2015 Gallup poll. 

We need to be careful: All this increased meaning-making is happening for high-end workers, high-skilled workers. There's less upside for lower-skilled workers — and more opportunity for exploitation.

Look at domestic workers, people who work independently as nannies or housekeepers. They would describe their experience of day-to-day work in different terms than a higher-wage worker. There are more constrained opportunities, I would say, for autonomy.

In the service industry generally, there is a rise in the use of algorithms in scheduling. You can forecast what the demand will be at the store in ways that you couldn't before. That leaves organizations wanting more flexibility in when they bring people in, for what shifts. That can hurt the retail worker, because they don't know when they'll be scheduled, and they will be sent home if the shift is slow. When you have variable pay but you have constant bills, that can be a recipe for disaster. The rent is the same every month, but if your hours are not the same, you can end up with a gap.

Even highly skilled workers such as programmers and engineers might be vulnerable due to outsourcing, especially if they work in high-wage regions. Is this a major concern?

The big takeaway is this is a new world of work, and things are changing. It’s hard to predict the future and see what the ripple effects might be. There's so many unknowns, and so many things that are in play.

I do think for the top 1 percent of talent, they’re always going to have a good time. If you’re the top programmer in whatever language is hot, you’re going to have your pick of assignments. But for the other 99 percent, there could be pressure on wages. On the flip side, as organizations continue wanting to hire outside traditional employment contracts, there could be more jobs.

A chart of US numbers from a 2015 Gallup poll shows that telecommuters tend to be better educated, better paid and more highly skilled than their non-telecommuting peers. For example, 55% of employed college graduates have telecommuted, compared with 26% of non-college graduates. And 52% of those with an annual household income of $75,000 or more have telecommuted, compared with 26% of those whose household income is less than $75,000. The number for white-collar professions is 44% and for blue-collar professions, 16%.
Telecommuters tend to be better educated, better paid, and more highly skilled than their non-telecommuting peers, these US Gallup numbers show. 

For example, if you’re in a rural area, you may not have to move to find a new job if you lose your work, because you can do it online. That’s great for a person in a less expensive area, but of course it then has a ripple effect across the entire labor market, and people who are in more expensive areas will find that overall wages are driven down. Think of a programmer in Nebraska and a programmer in the Bay Area, and what they’re going to charge.

What can society do to help mitigate the downsides of alternative work arrangements?

The biggest answer, which I think you’re going to hear from pretty much everyone, is having benefits that are not tied to standard employment contracts. There needs to be some type of retirement system beyond Social Security that folks can contribute to and get vested in. There needs to be more access to health insurance without it being subsidized by the employer. There are workers who take these alternative jobs, but the lack of these social protections and benefits makes those workers more prone to exploitation.

What about regulations to prevent employers from imposing exploitive schedules?

When you're talking about someone who works at a physical place, like Starbucks, it can be as simple as having a human check the algorithm to make sure the schedule is set up in a way that's humane, with 10 hours between shifts, and so forth. But with the more giggy work, where someone’s trying to earn money off one of the online platforms like Upwork [that connect freelance workers to employers offering casual work], it becomes harder to regulate, because their work is more dispersed across employers. To come up with solutions, you need to understand the vastness of the world of alternative work arrangements.

And what if there is no organization? What if somebody’s a babysitter, and a musician, and they’re copyediting for Upwork and also drive for Lyft on the weekend? That’s real alternative work. That’s a free market, that’s the individual making a lot of choices. But there is no organization to regulate.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this emerging new world of work?

It’s both a return to the old and the beginning of the new. By return to the old, I mean pre-Industrial Revolution. Back then, you worked in the field, you took a nap, you went to the market to trade things. Work was this economic activity that was not tied to employment but was an integral part of your life.

The new wave probably started in the mid-1980s, with the rise of outsourcing. And with today’s gig economy, many jobs depend on a technology platform to connect workers and employers — which is a new phenomenon. There’s an app out there called Gigwalk. You walk around with your smartphone in downtown San Francisco, for example, and it shows you different gigs you could do. You could be a mystery shopper at this store, or do a product review at another store. You’re continually building that on a real-time basis. In that way, we’re going back to work being a continual part of life again.

The downside of this is you’re always on. You hear this from people across the skill categories.

Higher-skill workers are, like, “I’m always on my phone” — there needs to be high responsiveness because work never sleeps. Even at midnight, your employees in India might need your help.

And for lower-skill workers, there can be these thoughts of: What is the next gig? You can imagine the possibilities for burnout and the challenges it has for work and family demands.