Gig vs. Career: The Ups and Downs of the World of Work

A look back at the OECD Forum 2017 session
 Gig vs. Career: The Ups and Downs of the World of Work

This article is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract

self-employment as share of total employment

The world of work is changing rapidly

Globalisation, automation and other technological shifts, the rise of the digital economy and, along with it, the gig economy, are transforming jobs as we have known them. While such disruptive change has created new opportunities, it has also raised unprecedented concerns. Many people in the workforce today are wondering whether they will still have a good job – or any job at all – in the future and are even more concerned about their children’s prospects. 

Increasing divides

High levels of unemployment following the financial crisis have contributed to deepening economic and societal divides. While unemployment in the OECD is expected to ease to 6.1% by the end of 2017, 39 million people will remain out of work – 6.3 million more than before the crisis, with about 30% of the unemployed confronted with being out of work for 12 months or more. The world of work itself is also divided, whether between youth starting their working lives and older workers who are already well established, women and men, blue collar workers and white collar ones, those with “zero hour” contracts in service industries and those launching start-ups. 

Unemployment rates

Source: OECD

What jobs are out there?

OECD research shows that for people in the middle of the skills and salary scale, many jobs are disappearing entirely, separating the market into high- and low-skill poles. Those at the low-skill, low-income end often only have access to precarious jobs and at lower salaries than before the crisis, particularly women. And “non-standard” work (part-time or temporary work or self-employment) now makes up around 1 in 3 jobs in OECD countries.

The level of “gig” jobs, organised through online platforms, is lower, however, at about 1% in the United Kingdom and 3% in the US, although data seem to indicate that this is rapidly growing source of employment. What is less clear, however, is how many workers are combining such non-standard work (whether gigs or otherwise) with traditional, standard jobs, in order to support themselves adequately. More data are needed here. 

Non-standard work is not new

Source: OECD

With the rise of the digital economy, the matching of workers to jobs and tasks has been made easier and more efficient but it has also increased the demand for temporary and part-time workers. The traditional employment relationship is being replaced by a range of more adaptable employment options, with workplace flexibility – with respect to contracts, time and location – the name of the game. For some workers, particularly those with skills for which demand is disappearing, this is a frightening shift, but, as David Cruickshank, Global Chairman, Deloitte reported, research from Deloitte shows that people, millennials in particular, want to work for organisations with a clear sense of purpose and that they expect opportunities for progression, even as they expect to have multiple careers across different areas during their working life.

Making employment and social polices “future proof”

The ramifications of today’s transformations are wide. John Evans, General Secretary of Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, argued that we must not let 21st century technology create a world of work with 19th century working conditions. Panellists agreed that we need new employment rules and regulations, and workplace cultures and conditions, stressing the essential role of governments and social institutions in shaping these. 

The OECD Forum on Twitter

Such concerns are at the top of the agenda in the OECD, with policy options such as “portable benefits” that follow workers from job to job being considered. Aart de Geus, Chairman & CEO, Bertelsmann Stiftung called for a “clever system of defaults”, in order to ensure that people participate in pensions systems, health benefits, or training programmes, unless they indicate they do not wish to do so. This would tie social security to the individual, rather than to the job. Other options being explored and tested include a minimum income, increased career guidance and nurturing of entrepreneurship, and deeper investment in active social spending.

Equal employment opportunities for all?

As Jacques van den Broek, CEO of Randstad reminded panellists, this is not a given. Background, gender, income and education all feed into growing divides. Faced by a demographically diminishing labour force, it is more important than ever to achieve an inclusive labour market where everybody who wants to work can work – and at a good quality job. In this context, ensuring women’s active inclusion in the workforce is key. While the number of women working has increased, including in part-time jobs (40% versus around 28% for men), they remain underrepresented in the tech world and face significant barriers to business creation, as Nicola Hazell, SheStarts Director and Head of Diversity & Impact at BlueChilli, noted. This demands changing social expectations and conditions in the workplace to achieve greater equality. Education and lifelong learning and training were also clearly identified as effective ways to address job instability and improve equality, although more investment is needed and in the right kinds of learning: not only technical training but also cognitive and social training. 

Tech is still a man's world
  • What is the role of labour unions in this new world? Can those in non-standard work join existing unions? Should they? Or do we need new forms of social institutions for non-standard workers? 
  • Which countries are succeeding in meeting the policy challenges of this new world of work? How are they doing it?

The Forum Network is an interactive space where concepts are challenged and new ideas are formed to shape better policies for better lives. Comment below to give your thoughts and continue the conversation!

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Got a few more minutes?

Session panellists:


  • Jason Karaian, Senior Europe Correspondent, Quartz  @jkaraian

Scene Setting 

  • Stefano Scarpetta, Director, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD @OECD_Social


  • Jacques van den Broek, CEO, Randstad
  • David Cruickshank, Global Chairman, Deloitte @Deloitte
  • John Evans, General Secretary, Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) @evansaptuac
  • Aart de Geus, Chairman & CEO, Bertelsmann Stiftung @aartjandegeus
  • Nicola Hazell, SheStarts Director, Head of Diversity and Impact, BlueChilli @nic_hazell

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