Financial Diaries of the Gig Economy – Income and Precarity

September 11, 2020 | Blog

Part Two - Feast or Famine: Fluctuating Revenues in the Gig Economy

“I do see large variations throughout the year. I could go from making $700 to making $2100. Managing this has been unsustainable for my mental health. However, my basic needs and most of my wants are often low expense anyway.”

-        Study participant

This is the second part of a six-part series sharing the outcomes of a six-month study on cash flow and financial precarity with a dozen individuals living and working in the Greater Toronto Area in what is described as the ‘gig economy’.

The cash flow study was delivered by DUCA Impact Lab and UKAI Projects.

See part one of the series to learn more about the methodology and intentions of the study. Each post will explore findings in the data set that suggest further exploration and/or relevance to the development of innovative financial instruments that support the experiences of those feeling precarity or volatility in their work.

The study involved comprehensive tracking of cash flow on a transaction by transaction basis from October 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020. Late in the study period, Canada saw isolation orders as the COVID-19 pandemic moved across North America and the world. Qualitative interviews conducted prior, during and after the study period provide elaboration on the emerging statistical themes arising from the study.

This series of blog posts will elaborate on the results of this research and begin pointing to trends and opportunities for both those offering services in the arts and culture community and those seeking to understand the kinds of financial services required in a rapidly evolving labour market. The research study consisted of 12 creators aged 24 to 46. Seven of the participants identified as male with five identifying as female. Eight of the twelve identified as non-white with three of the eight identifying as part of the African diaspora. Participation was drawn from across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and represented a range of employment situations, creative disciplines, and educational levels. Two of the twelve participants failed to complete the full study period. Three of the twelve are parents of school age children.

One of the most striking things about the cash flow tracking undertaken in support of this research was the volatility in income from month to month and the variation in outcomes among the participating creators over the study period.

In only two of the twelve cases were income variations minimal with the gap between highest income month and lowest income month varying by less than 25%. Nine of the twelve saw variations of greater than 100% during the six-month study with three of the nine seeing at least one month of zero income. Expenses also varied considerably, though with only five of the twelve participants seeing variations of greater than 100% over the study period.

Debt Bridges Periods of Scarcity, But It Isn’t Always With Financial Institutions

When asked about months when income plummeted, such as when COVID affected the ability to work, one participant stated, “ I was just using my credit cards to pay for the essentials, which was gas in my car and food on the table. And that's really all that I needed that month.” Several participants also admitted to carrying debt and cash reserves simultaneously to be able to deal with the predictable fluctuations in income. Another participant who works as a driver on a cash-only basis described this tension.

“I have a lot of debt – that’s something that I struggle with, with my credit cards. If I'm short falling, I touch my credit again. If it's for groceries or something, but I also build up, I also have like $10,000 in my savings right now that I'm trying not to touch at all. But if worst comes to worst, I'll have to touch that. And I might have to buy a new car right now because my car is about to break down, so I might have to touch it.” The same participant lamented the interest payments but recognized that without cash in hand, emergencies would be much harder to manage without ready access to cash to cover rent and vehicle insurance.

Another participant noted that the arts granting system led to considerable income insecurity from month to month. In the study period, they received a large grant that exceeded the combined income from all other sources for the six-month period. The grant entailed almost 5 months of waiting with an uncertain rate of success. They offered that the fluctuations were, “attributable to grants and the way that flows in … you know, to the non-consistency of work in terms of grants”.

As we will see, the overall income for the creators in this study were relatively high (annualized to $78,000 on average). However, the uncertainty of month-to-month opportunities means that long-term planning becomes difficult or impossible. As one participant described, “during a shortfall, I rely on my digital savings, my cash savings and lastly I’ll ask a family member to borrow a really low amount to cover my basic needs. In a surplus, I already have ideas or projects or investments I want to fund or pay back pressing debts. I guess I tend to spend money on short term investments that will have long term gains - the Oculus headset for example”.

A pattern emerges of extended scarcity with periods of surplus. Scarcity is addressed through the accumulation of debt. Surpluses are used to invest in technology and equipment (in 3 cases) or in travel (in 2 cases). In only one case did a participant commit all surplus to debt reduction.

In the three cases of steady income, two of these were attributable to income sharing with a salaried partner and in one case to a salaried position separate from the creative practice.  Risk is pooled within families living together. Who is responsible for consistent income may vary over time.

Incomes Vary Widely And Don’t Fit Well With Traditional Financing Options

There was also considerable variation within the study group. The average income for the six-month period was $39,354 with a minimum of $7,283 and a maximum of $126,382. The median income was $29,547. Richard E. Caves in his 2000 book Creative Industries explored the economic organization of arts and culture and detailed how incomes align with a structure of “A-list” and “B-list” talent. A small number of creative professionals earn a disproportionate share of incomes.

One participant in the study received income from over six sources during the study and expressed ambivalence about earning money from his art. He offers, “it's such a weird thing, you know? Being an artist in the past 10 years, it's not stable sometimes. I always have to figure out a magic trick up my sleeve to get paid, you know? And sometimes I just feel like it's not worth it, like money wise. Because I'm a strong believer that not all money is good money. You don't always have to take everything.”

Another participant is now experiencing success but describes a prolonged period of struggle. He states, “I don't pay myself enough. So that's why I accrued $40,000 in debt over the course of, you know, two and a half years just for the business so that I could keep it going and like really, you know, do the things that I needed to do without any constraints”. This participant managed to pay off that debt and is thriving. However, the structures in place often seemed to conspire against growth. He states, “I feel like if you were to give me $20,000 interest free for a year and pay back the principal within, you know, like three or four years, it would have been a lot easier for me to get way past where I am now.”

Not all creators will achieve the status of “A-list” compensation. However, many talented creators are unable to focus on developing their practice during their critical first few years. Grants for non-profits and artists require evidence of at least two years of successful practice. Venture capital is not interested in creative fields. Financial institutions see independent contractors as being risky.

The Unique Opportunity Costs Of Staying Afloat

One of the most significant departures from traditional employment for the workers in our study was that a conflict emerges between investing time managing short term income requirements and the time required to facilitate long term income growth and viability. This is atypical to the traditional employment model where the two are often clearly linked, and creates unique complexity which needs to be navigated. What emerges is a community of creators walking a thin line between the “gig economy” and creative entrepreneurship. As a study participant remarked, “I feel like we are definitely in the gig economy, but the gig economy slash entrepreneurship economy and where I'm sure I'm an outlier because I don't think of myself as a contracted person. I think a bit more broadly. And that came with time. And also, the rate, the way I was taught how to do business”.

Establishing oneself as worthy of higher rates and larger contracts requires dedicated effort. Too few have access to resources to weather 2 or 3 years of low and volatile income and so they take on gigs that pay enough to survive but occupy time that could be directed at improving relationships and creative skills. As one participant noted, “The precarity about the future is not about me NOT having my basic needs and wants met but that I will never be able to earn the capital I would need to self-fund my entrepreneurial endeavours and that I’d need to rely on other sources.”. While one participant was clear that intergenerational wealth allowed them to maintain a non-profitable creative practice, the vast majority describe experiences where family is only a measure of last resort.

Creators operating in the gig economy see considerable fluctuations from month to month and amongst themselves. The first few years are critical for creators to establish the rate they are able to charge and the types of contracts available to them. However, the precarity and lack of a safety net means that creative pursuits are completed when time permits while under the table or gig-based work helps to meet basic needs. The rare surpluses are pushed back into developing the creative practice while debt accumulates making capital accumulation or breathing space a more distant prospect. By the time a creator is deemed a worthwhile risk for lenders, the need for resources has diminished considerably. There are few supports available to mitigate the risks and volatility inherent in the first years of a creative practice.

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