The Gig Economy Isn’t Coming; It’s Here. What Does that Mean for Education?

Topics: Future of Learning

The rise of the gig economy is one indicator of why we need to consider how we prepare students for a future of work that is quite different from today.You can recognize them by the spinning contraption that sits on top if their roofs. This contraption is lidar, a form of radar that helps a self-driving car navigate and manage distance. In my home city of Pittsburgh, it is almost impossible to spend anytime outside and not see a vehicle with lidar.

The emergence of self-driving cars in the steel city stems from the ride sharing company Uber testing their fleet of autonomous vehicles. This fleet signals an emerging future where smart machines, such as the self-driving car, are capable of doing more and more tasks that used to fall strictly in the domain of human work. It also signals a future where work is organized differently than it is today.

Uber and other ride sharing platforms such as Lyft represent work that falls under what is often called the gig or project-based economy. As the names imply, workers who participate in these economies are hired to do a gig or a project for a duration of time. Work in this economy is typically not full time and is often contract based. In the case of ride sharing platforms, the driver is considered a contractor, not an employee; and the gig or project is to drive.

As our latest forecast, “Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out” detailed, project-based work is on the rise, and the average job tenure is falling. Today, the average adult holds 11.7 jobs in his or her lifetime. To put that statistic in perspective, if the average adult works for fifty years, that person will have a new job roughly every four years, making frequent job changes the norm for many people. Research firm McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 54 to 68 million people in the United States already work in the project-based economy. This number is expected to rise thanks large part to the lower coordination costs afforded by the internet and the access to an expanded labor pool resulting from globalization. The internet is making it increasingly cost effective for firms to access people with specialized skills on the open market instead of employing people full-time.

Even as the project based economy is growing, it is already beginning to change by becoming increasingly granular. This granularity is called taskification, or the breaking down of formal jobs or projects into discrete tasks, often at lower wages and with informal job structures. Examples of taskification include Amazon Mechanical Turk and Daemo. Both are online, crowdsourced marketplaces where individuals and businesses coordinate on “human intelligence tasks,” or tasks that computers are currently unable to complete. Another example is Task Rabbit , an online platform that matches freelance labor with people who need tasks, such as house cleaning, home repair, or running errands, completed.

As jobs are broken down into projects, and project are broken down into tasks, such platforms are creating new avenues for people to earn or supplement a living by creating relatively easy “opt in” employment structures where someone who needs a job signs up to work and can dip in and out of working as needed. This type of breakdown or segmentation of work also makes such types of employment structures easier to automate.

Going back to Uber as an example, the job of driving a taxi was broken down into the task of driving. Where a taxi driver has to be hailed, navigate and collect the fare, Uber simply summons a human driver to a point of need while algorithms handle finding the customer, navigating and collecting payment. Now that Uber is trialing self-driving cars, the company will eventually replace even the human behind the wheel.

As more and more people enter employment through the platform and taskified economies, education must consider how to prepare them for a future of work that is organized quite differently than it is today. Discrete skills will always be important, but, given how fluid work can be and how susceptible jobs are to automation in these new types of economies, such skills will likely have a drastically shorter shelf life than they do today. Education will have to prepare learners to thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, where jobs and professional pursuits are reconfigured even as they are being created. It is not just technological displacement and a new future of work for which educators must prepare young people, but also new ways of organizing jobs and tasks.

How do you think education can prepare young people for a world where much work will be organized differently than it is today? Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #RedefineReady or comment on Facebook.

Download “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out” to read more about an evolving definition of both college- and career-readiness.