Permanently Temporary: Chasing a stable income in a zero-hours world

Permanently Temporary: Chasing a stable income in a zero-hours world

Will we ever know a real job? The precariat speak — The life-long career is no longer an option for Millennials. So dynamic start-ups like Uber and TaskRabbit and are creating more options to work than ever before. But with little security, are jobs that promise “flexibility” really just ripping us off? And how can we plan for the future?

With apps like Uber and Deliveroo marching a path towards world domination, the “on-demand revolution” is the talk of start-up land. From Silicon Valley to Silicon Roundabout, the smart money is looking for the “next Uber” for everything from massages to valet parking. But apps that conjure up workers at the drop of a hat rely on a pool of “flexible” labour – which usually means young people prepared to drop everything to chase a few measly shekels across town. Who can blame us?

Millennials are the most highly-educated generation yet, but if you think that translates into stable jobs, healthcare, pensions and a bankable future, you’ve got another think coming. We came of age in a post-crisis world where job security is a thing of the past. We compete for unpaid internships, make do on zero-hour contracts, and are expected to change jobs, careers and even cities in the blink of an eye.

Whether we know it or not, we’re the precariat – an unsexy, academic title for a generation living on the edge, without economic security; rarely much more than one paycheque, temporary contract or rent hike away from being left out on our arses.

But who said we wanted jobs for life, anyway? And since when was going grey in that corner office something we ever aspired to?

From the explosion of freelancing (4.6 million people are registered as self-employed in the UK, the highest ever recorded) and agency work; to the rise of the “on-demand” or “gig” economy, through Uber or skills exchange websites and apps like Fiverr or TaskRabbit, there have never been as many options to work, when, where and how we like – in theory, at least.

We’re sold the dream of “not having a boss,” but if we’re ordered around all day by our smartphone instead, aren’t we just slaves to a new master? We’re told we can set terms and name our price, but how often do young workers really get to call the shots? And does this ever-changing world of work give us the opportunity to build the careers and futures we want? We reached out to young people working a variety of flexible, unstable and temporary jobs across the UK to find out.

Sapphy, 26

Sapphy works as a special needs teaching assistant through an agency, which keeps her going between paid and un-paid research positions.

Sapphy pic

“I haven’t been able to find stable employment in research, which is what I want to do, so agency work is just a way to survive. I really enjoy the school I’m at now, it’s five days per week and I have the option to work when I want. But most agency jobs just call you up at 7am and send you to a school.

“I feel anxious about the future because I’m not where I want to be career-wise yet. So agency work has served me because I’m not committed to it, if something better came along I know I could move on. The instability is OK for me, but it must be scary for people with kids. I share a bedroom, I live with seven people and I just about get by, but there’s no way I could work like this if I wanted a family.

“Agency work and zero-hour contracts have an impact on a societal level. I work with really vulnerable children and if they’re having different members of staff every day, which they are, that’s really not good for them. It’s not good for the sense of community at the school either. The fact that it’s become so widespread has quite a detrimental effect on lots of people, not just the people that are doing the work.”

Mo, 30

Mo works 30-35 hours per week as an Uber driver in London. He owns his own car and is saving to do something for himself in future.

“I’ve been doing Uber since last summer and I can’t complain really. I used to use Uber all the time so after chatting to the drivers I decided I’d give it a go part-time. I liked it so I went full-time. The flexibility is the best part. You can work when you want and there’s nobody to answer to. Because you can work when you want, it’s very easy not to work. If you’ve made plans and somebody calls you and says let’s go out, there’s nobody to stop you. You can take a day, a week or a month off if you like, but you’re self employed so obviously you’re not getting paid.

“You have to pay for the car and maintenance yourself so your expenses are quite high before you start making any money. There’s no sick pay or holiday pay either. You never know how much you’re going to make but the more hours you do, the higher chance you have of making good money. And you can choose when to put those hours in.

“I don’t have much communication with the company, if there’s a problem I send them an email and it gets fixed. But drivers don’t have much power. They can just block your phone without any answer.

“The smartphone is there to help you, it helps you make more money at the end of the day. If the conversation is good, I’m happy. The only times it’s not good or I get frustrated is when I you get stuck in traffic or if you get a moany passenger.”

Jasmine, 23

Jasmine moved back to her parents’ house in Hull and has been doing agency work while she saves up for a Masters in journalism.

Jasmine pic

“Hull’s not in a very great place economically right now, so finding any type of work is really difficult. Copywriting work can be fruitful when it sporadically comes in. I’ve done admin work for a few days until they didn’t need me any more, then I’ve been shunted to marketing stuff and I think I’ll end up doing some casual bar work next week, so it’s all quite unpredictable really. It doesn’t allow me to live the life I want to lead and I rarely reach my saving target each month.

“I have diagnosed anxiety disorder but I can usually keep that in check. When something like this is happening it’s incredibly stressful. You don’t really sleep a lot. I challenge the average person to try temp work and not feel anxious to a certain extent. It affects your ego as well. You can feel completely worthless when you can’t even tie down a basic scheme of employment and you’re always at the whim of someone else.

“I am the archetypal precariat right now. Especially coming from a working class background, I teeter in that position all the time, as do a lot of people I know. You’re kind of straddling these two worlds. People are encouraged to live like they’re middle class and put on this outward display of getting on, when they’ve got no savings behind them. The likelihood of being able to afford a house in somewhere like London, for example, is nigh-on impossible, but nobody’s telling them to slow down. That’s capitalism I guess, but I don’t know when it’s all going to implode.”

Joe, 24

Joe works in theatre, mainly performing but also writing and directing. He used to work through odd-jobs app TaskRabbit but is now working for a catering agency in London.

Joe pic

“With precarious employment comes precarious payment. If there’s an argument over two pounds, they can end up not paying you the fifty pounds they owe you. You have to be really careful. Sometimes you earn a really good wage in a week, sometimes you earn absolutely peanuts. That can be difficult and it can be stressful. I’m in a long distance relationship, so if I want to come up to Manchester to see my girlfriend I’ve got to budget for that two weeks in advance. It makes small decisions like that more complicated.”

“I used to work for TaskRabbit but left after they updated their pay structure and began taking 30% rather than 20% for your first job with a customer. Their cut falls back to 20% again when you do a repeat job, but in reality that’s unlikely because most of the jobs are one-offs, so TaskRabbit always take 30%. They incentivise you to charge the client more, which obviously works in their favour.

“The minimum you’re allowed to charge is £12 per hour, so that still works out at the living wage after they take their cut, but when you add in travel time on jobs that rarely take more than a few hours, it’s less of a good deal. You’re only given training on how to use the app, not how to deal with difficult situations. My friends have been told things like, ‘It’s nice to get someone like you,’ meaning a well-spoken, white man. Race comes into certain people’s decisions and there are jobs where men usually get picked over women.”

Jacob, 27

Jacob is from Berlin and has been studying in London on and off since 2008. He’s worked part-time as a cycle delivery rider for Deliveroo in Dalston for the last six months.

“I like cycling and I like the challenge of riding fast, so overall it’s been good for me. Deliveroo appears to be very flexible, but it isn’t really because you have to work prescribed shifts and two evenings each weekend. It does fit in with a student lifestyle but if you cycle for four hours in the evening you’re quite exhausted, so it’s hard to get up and go to lectures or study the next morning without resting. You have have to get used to the strain on the body.”

“I see myself having a permanent, white collar job in the future but I don’t know how realistic that is. The disinvestment in people by companies means these temporary, flexible contracts will spread beyond service-based, mundane jobs and spread more and more to “real jobs”. I think that’s going to follow me and a lot of people in my generation. I’m an optimistic person but I’m anxious – and so is everybody else. I see how society is developing, so I’m just going to have to find a way to carve something out for myself. I don’t know how, but it’ll work out somehow.

“With Deliveroo, you just follow your phone around and do what it tells you. It’s just the first step towards full automation of the workplace, which will come eventually. More and more of our jobs will become irrelevant in the coming decades because an app will be able to do them better. That should prompt the question, why do we really need to work? Instead of dictating how to do our jobs, apps should just take work away from us, so that we are free to concentrate on more complex or meaningful things. But I don’t think it’ll be used the right way because we live in a capitalist society where work is everything. Technology has huge potential to allow us to compete less and free us from doing work altogether, but it will be seen as an enemy to jobs and seen as theft instead of liberation.”

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