We're Headed for a Great Gig Divide. Here's Why We Should Be Worried | Opinion

After seasoned executive Duncan Thomas healed from advanced melanoma, he seriously reflected on what he wanted from life and work and decided to become an "itinerant CEO." For Thomas, that means getting a five-to-six-month executive gig—recent stints include leading a medical practice and a software firm—then taking a break to spend time with his family and recharge before moving on to the next position. Thomas is not the only itinerant CEO out there—others have adopted a similar lifestyle working as freelance or interim CEOs.

CEO is probably not the job you think of when you hear the term "gig work." More likely, it's an Uber driver or food delivery person that comes to mind. But freelancing is increasingly common in all sectors and across skill levels. A recent study by Upwork found that the majority of freelance work in 2021 (53 percent, up from 45 percent in 2019) was highly skilled labor in fields like computer programming, writing, design, IT, marketing, and business consulting.

While gig work can offer flexibility and autonomy, there are many downsides: low and unpredictable pay, limited benefits, lack of stability, and erosion of work-life boundaries. Many, including myself, have written about the precarious and exploitative nature of the gig economy. Much of this discussion, however, ignores the experiences of higher-skilled freelance workers, for whom the gig work revolution may prove to be a boon rather than a bust.

As an increasing number of highly skilled and credentialed workers like doctors, coders, lawyers, and educators embrace independent contracting, I predict it will create a "Great Gig Divide"—Higher-skilled gig workers will benefit from increased flexibility and autonomy while lower-skilled gig workers slide into greater precarity and poorer working conditions.

I've seen this looming divide from many angles. I'm a professor with a traditional full-time, salaried position at USC Marshall School of Business, but I've also done gig work requiring different skill levels, from taking on short-term business consulting gigs as a freelancer to working as a part-time Postmates driver for 18 months as part of a research project. My time driving for Postmates gave me an up-close view into how harsh the gig economy can be for lower-skilled workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the expectations of consumers in today's on-demand economy, who want everything available to them instantly at all hours of the day. The apps that have sprung up to meet this demand, from Instacart to DoorDash, make life easier for consumers. But my research found that these apps can lead to feelings of alienation and exploitation among workers who are denied the stability and support that traditional organizations have historically provided.

The emergence of the Great Gig Divide will hinge on some workers exerting control over, and others being controlled by, these technologies. For higher-skilled contractors, technology will serve to connect and empower, creating opportunities to grow and monetize their personal brands. Platforms like Upwork and Braintrust help highly skilled freelancers find gigs. Apps like Focusmate, Freelancer Club, and The Dots create community—but primarily among professional knowledge workers, not drivers, pet sitters, or food couriers.

A DoorDash delivery person rides a bicycle
A DoorDash delivery person rides a bicycle on the Upper West Side during a snow storm on Feb. 1, 2021, in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images

While the highest-skilled contractors can thrive by leveraging technology, the lower-skilled contractors I've interviewed for my research often feel increasingly controlled by the impersonal algorithms that direct their work. For lower-skilled freelancers, the customer-first, cost-saving ethos of on-demand platforms suppresses rather than strengthens workers' identities, precluding them from crafting, let alone monetizing, a personal brand under the constraints of algorithmic efficiency.

The more that highly skilled freelancers control their professional and personal destiny, the worse things may get for those with fewer marketable skills. The growth of remote work, especially among higher-skilled freelancers, means lower-skilled freelancers spending more time in their cars and stores attending to the needs of those sitting at home. While taxing, repetitive work is nothing new, my research suggests that the isolation many of these workers feel undermines their mental and physical well-being. Often, their only "coworker" is the app constantly looking over their shoulder, dispassionately managing their workflow.

There is no stopping the "gigification" of the workforce. Upwork's 2021 study found that freelancers contributed $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy in annual earnings, up $100 million from 2020. Although commentators often lump together profoundly different classes of workers under umbrella terms like "gig workers," "freelancers," and "independent contractors," the label we use matters less than our collective recognition that technology may contribute to increasingly wide gaps in opportunities and outcomes for the most and the least skilled workers.

Accordingly, the same policies, technological developments, and work arrangements that help one group of workers might be detrimental to the other. To avoid greater inequality, we should look for ways to ensure the gig economy provides better opportunities for everyone, instead of only a select few.

Eric Anicich is an assistant professor of management and organization at USC Marshall School of Business, where he studies the forms and functions of social hierarchy within groups.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.