Financial Diaries of the Gig Economy – Introducing Our Collaboration Series with uKai Projects

September 11, 2020 | Blog

“I have long-term goals. Like I just … it's just going to be hard to reach them. And when you ask me what artists need, I think, I think they need to find some sort of stability in this city and I don't know how they're going to find it. Every artist has their own path, you know? I can't look at someone else's plate. It's just going to mess up my situation. I don't know one person who gets, who pays rent the same way as someone else. Everyone that I know, they all do something different”

-        Study Participant Interview

The Nature Of Work Has Changed For A Lot Of People

Financial services and products are developed in response to needs. Changes in the needs and realities of many Canadians were happening long before the catastrophic impact of COVID-19. Anecdotal evidence of adaptations being made by those working freelance or in the gig economy were readily available on social media and elsewhere. Stories of long waits to get paid, wild fluctuations in income, and the shift of risk to workers were common. Similarly, workarounds and solutions are being shared, often by those speaking from lived experiences of precarity. 

COVID-19 is bringing volatile working conditions starkly to light. The StatsCan Labour Force Survey (LFS) for June 2020 showed an unemployment rate of over 12 per cent (StatsCan 2020) in Ontario. For those under 25, the rate is 30 per cent.  As staggering as these figures are, they only paint part of the picture as the definition of unemployment used by StatsCan is rigorously narrow. True rates of unemployment and severe underemployment may be as high as 30 per cent across the population (Standard 2020) and over 50 per cent for young people.

Precarious work has become a feature of life in modern economies. According to the Census, even in 2016, 10 per cent of Toronto’s work force was working in the ‘gig economy’. Gig economy workers are defined by Statistics Canada as “unincorporated self-employed workers who enter into various contracts with firms or individuals to complete a specific task or to work for a specific period of time.” It includes freelancers and on-demand workers hired by ‘sharing’ services such as Uber.

Since the 1980s, employment security has weakened amidst a boom in “novel” employment relationships. Social and economic precarity is increasingly the norm.

Financial Services Are Not Designed For This – We Need To Understand How They Could Be

Few studies have attempted to understand in depth the adaptations being made by individuals experiencing precarity and the financial services that might allay the pressures of an increasingly atomized labour market. To better understand the lived experiences of freelancers and other precarious workers, DUCA Impact Lab and UKAI Projects, a Toronto-based non-profit, conducted a 6-month study of twelve freelancers working in the creative and cultural sector.

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.

Seven video portraits were also created in support of this work to allow creators to describe their relationship to money in their own terms.

The Gig Economy And Entrepreneurship Overlap, Particularly In The Creative Sector

The data and interviews paint a picture of creative people navigating a line between precarious “gig” work and models of entrepreneurship and growth. As one participant noted, “I feel like we are definitely in the gig economy, but it’s 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 I charge, the way I was taught how to do business”

Managing Cash Flow Looks Different For People With Inconsistent Income

Despite the small sample size, certain trends in the data suggest opportunities for further study.

  1. There is a huge range of net income amongst gig economy workers and from month to month for individual workers. Gross income over the six months ranged from $125K to just over $7K.
  2. While participants referenced debt as an ongoing concern, variations in income from month to month do not lead to fluctuations in amounts committed to servicing debt
  3. Rent levels suggest alternative living arrangements with rent making up on average 20% of income (29% excluding those that do not pay rent). Based on the average cost of rent per month ($549.63), it appears as though more than half the individuals have a living situation where they either do not have to pay rent or pay discounted costs.
  4. On average, individuals spend the same amount of their gross income on dining out as on groceries for home consumption.

The bigger picture is one of lifestyles and expenses organized around the precarity inherent in employment. Risks related to rent, transportation and revenue are shared amongst those experiencing similar uncertainty. Moreover, no conceptual or practical separation exists between the financial implications of creative work and the participant’s overall financial situation. That is to say, only one of the participants distinguished among sources of income related to their creative practice versus employment gained through other sources such as driving for Uber, construction and trades, or alternative healthcare.

Starting To Analyze The Social, Financial and Opportunity Costs of Precarity

There is a desire to develop entrepreneurial ventures to be distinct, but the volatility of the work makes this difficult. As one participant offered, “the precarity 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”

Subsequent posts will explore these themes more deeply, but the picture being painted is one of individuals designing their lifestyles around the contingencies and uncertainties of the gig economy. Data around rent, food, medical expenses and so on are often below those quoted in studies pointing to the rising costs of living in the GTHA. Only through deeper analysis can the social and financial costs of precarity be understood. Creative workers are making different choices about housing, transportation, and medical care in support of pursuing creative ambitions.

As one participant, speaking about proposing to their partner in the coming months and saving for a ring offers: “Even starting a family right now, if I were to start a family right now, it would mess everything up. Like everything. I believe every child's a gift. All my friends are having kids right now, but like, I just, I can't right now. Like I’ve got to focus right now, especially in this city. Like everything's so expensive. Like, I live in this one bedroom, this place costs me like 2000 bucks a month. And then on top of that, I have to pay for my car insurance [for my work]. And it's just this city's crazy sometimes.”

Rent is controlled through intergenerational cohabitation or multiple roommates. Transportation costs are addressed through sharing assets with family members, leading to volatility in the ability to participate in work. Medical treatments are often secured through exchanges or through under-treatment. Delays in payment or volatility in income are managed through debt with few coherent plans to address long-term accumulation.

While the asymmetrical distribution of incomes in the creative sector is a long-studied phenomenon (Caves 2000), the extension of non-traditional lifestyles far into adulthood while waiting for the opportunity to ‘make it’ is a less well-explored phenomenon. Furthermore, the volatility in income seems to be a greater contributor to these adaptations than overall income levels.

We hope that this series will inspire new conversation about the nature of creative work in cities like Toronto and prompt thought on the types of solutions necessary to accommodate the choices being made and the realities of living with precarious and volatile employment.

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