The Gig Economy is big and here to stay. Here’s how workers are surviving and thriving

Tiffany Zadi creates leather shoulder bags, totes, accessories and jewelry. While trolling thrift shops for materials she’ll recycle for her fashions, she’ll snatch up vintage finds and resell them through Etsy. The Little Havana resident also teaches piano to several students, and lately she’s been leading handicraft “experiences” for small groups through Airbnb.

Joseph Nay builds and designs websites, including steady work for a content studio and a digital marketing agency. That’s led to other freelance jobs. The largely self-taught Hollywood resident also creates and edits motion graphics and assists a nonprofit focused on helping Haiti. “It’s been a fun ride, tiring but fun,” he said.

Zadi and Nay leverage their skills, experience and passions into a diverse portfolio of multiple work assignments and revenue streams to thrive in the Gig Economy, a fast-growing worker movement that includes consulting and contracting, temping, freelancing, self-employment, side gigs and on-demand workers. While Zadi and Nay enthusiastically jumped into the Gig Economy – in fact, Zadi gave up a law career to pursue her passions – others are thrust into it by necessity, as full-time jobs have slipped away. Some want the supplemental income as wages remain largely stagnant while still others use it as a buffer as they ease into retirement.

Experts differ on exactly how large the Gig Economy is – these jobs don’t fit neatly into categories the government tracks – as well as on the pluses and drawbacks for workers and the economy. But there is consensus that the Gig Economy is growing faster than traditional employment. And it is here to stay.

A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute Report found that about 27 percent of working-age people in the United States and Europe engage at least partially in independent work. A 2016 study by the Minneapolis Fed found a 37 percent engagement rate in the U.S., while government economists have estimated that about 40 percent of Americans will be working outside traditional full-time jobs by 2020.

“There’s this myth that the Gig Economy equals Uber driver,” said Diane Mulcahy, who recently authored a book on the subject. “If you are not a full-time employee in a full-time job, you are part of the Gig Economy.”

While gig workers have been around as long as there have been handymen, tutors, writers and musicians, what’s new about the Gig Economy is how quickly it has infiltrated white-collar professions and industries such as healthcare, finance, legal and technology, said Mulcahy. She is a private equity advisor for the Kauffman Foundation, which studies and supports entrepreneurship. As proof, she said, look at the growth of national online placement services like Toptal for tech and finance workers and Axiom for lawyers.

The Gig Economy is likely larger in South Florida — always a hotbed for self-employment and small business activity — than in most parts of the country.

Here, there are fewer large corporations than in other metros. While the young Miami economy has always depended on foreign immigration for its population growth, Miami-Dade tends to draw more professional and higher-income immigrants who create new businesses, said Kevin Greiner, a senior fellow at the Florida International University Metropolitan Center.

In Miami-Dade, the number of nonemployer-firms (establishments without employees), tracks higher than the national average and the number of self-employed is greater, too, Greiner points out. In addition, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area ranked No. 1 among 40 large metros in this year’s Kauffman Foundation Index of Startup Activity measuring the rate new business creation.

“These are the numbers that usually get ignored but it is a huge chunk of the economy,” said Greiner. Miami-Dade has about 462,000 nonemployer establishments — or 85 percent of the 545,000 companies — versus 75 percent nationally. “Nonemployer companies, the self-employed and the creation of new businesses have always been more important to Miami-Dade than other comparable metro areas in the U.S.”

To service these freelancers and self-proprietors, a wave of co-working spaces has recently moved in, stretching from Fort Lauderdale to South Miami. There’s even an active freelancers’ group, CollabMiami, that jumps from space to space with popup meetups.

Nationally and locally, the one-two punch of tech advancements and recessionary times accelerated the Gig Economy.

Just before and during the most recent recession came the launch of several key tech-enabled online services, including ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, Airbnb for extra rooms and on-demand websites helping consumers find people to teach, write, serve or fix something for them. Other websites popped up to pool contract workers – from call center reps to hospitality workers to lawyers and accountants.

At the same time, corporations were already increasingly opting for cheaper contract labor that can be deployed when and where they need it.

“In just one generation, the corporate gravy train full of plentiful, progressive, benefit-rich and secure full-time jobs has left the station,” wrote Mulcahy in her book, “The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time off and Financing the Life You Want!” At the same time, workers are getting used to non-full-time work and even choosing it because of the freedom it can afford, she said. “The Gig Economy is a new way of work that seems to be working.”

Indeed, a national survey by the Freelancers Union and online freelance job board Upwork found that two-thirds of the 55 million Americans who freelanced in 2016 did so out of choice, up 10 points from their survey in 2014.

“[Workers] want the autonomy, the flexibility, the efficiency and the control that the Gig Economy offers,” said Mulcahy in an interview. “The Gig Economy is very big, very broad and very diverse.”

But that doesn’t mean navigating it is easy. No steady paycheck, no health insurance, no sick pay, no vacation pay. What happens when there’s too much month left at the end of your money?

“That’s the hardest part,” said Zadi, 36, the sole proprietor of Heist, her leather fashion company. She developed other businesses around her creative flair and is always seeking ways to monetize what she is already doing. While trolling thrift shops and garage sales for leather goods she can recycle for her fashions, she saw vintage finds she thought she could sell. Now she has an active vintage shop on Etsy; sometimes that is the steadiest cash flow of all. And when Airbnb launched its Experiences on its platform, she jumped at the chance. On a recent Saturday, a mother and her two teen daughters participated in an outing she led.

Zadi went to the University of Miami for undergraduate studies in music and graduated from law school in New England in 2009, pretty much the worst year to jump into the job market. She snagged some temp law work but made jewelry on the side. Once she finished one of her law gigs in the fall of 2014, she thought she would take the rest of the year off to focus on her art. “I never went back. I guess I wasn’t into office life.”

She says she lives simply and combines vacation time with trips to trade shows, where she showcases her wares. Because buying a house was important to her, Zadi lived at her parents’ home while she saved for a larger down payment to keep her monthly mortgage payments low.

She’s got the right idea, according to Mulcahy. Giggers should aim to create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings and much less debt. That may mean downsizing their own vision of the American Dream. Increasingly people can access the lifestyle they want rather than own it, such as renting a home and going car-free, Mulcahy said.

Managing volatile income can come down to ongoing business development and networking. Giggers must make sure to keep business flowing through the development pipeline and writing contracts in a way that ensures ongoing cash flow rather than a lump sum at the end of a project, Mulcahy said.

Mulcahy also advises building a safety net. Access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act has enabled more people to work in the Gig Economy. Indeed, the Miami area has among the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country. As for saving for retirement, that’s one of the few areas where the independent contractor has an advantage because through IRAs and 401Ks for the self-employed, they can save more quickly and at higher levels than their full-time brethren, she said.

Time management is also a challenge, said numerous giggers. “Finding time is always the struggle. I’m working on a freelance project this weekend,” said Nay, who is 31.

“When you work as an independent contractor, it is all about getting your work done in a very productive, efficient way so you maximize earnings and allow time for administrative tasks. It is figuring out when you get your best work done, figuring out how to prioritize your work and what to delegate out,” said Mulcahy, who has been teaching a Babson College MBA class on the Gig Economy for five years.

Jaclyn Rosell is relatively new to the Gig Economy and still finding her way.

She began selling her artisan soap online full-time last fall after working more than a dozen years in traditional jobs, first in real estate until the crash, then in retail management and then in construction. While those jobs easily covered her bills and offered benefits, she longed to work at home, where she could spend more time with her 3-year-old daughter.

Rosell picked up some wholesale clients including West Elm. Networking with event planners has resulted in more orders for guest and thank-you gifts. For some clients she has provided private label products, and she began making malas with aromatherapy features. Still, navigating the slower summer was “a rude awakening,” with maxed out credit cards and IOUs, and she contemplated going back to traditional work. But now her calendar is filling up again and she says she has learned ways to better navigate the summer slump next year.

For Nay, the Gig Economy has helped him build his portfolio of skills faster than he might have with a traditional job, as he’s created websites and motion graphics for national retailers, airlines, healthcare companies and nonprofits. “I get to move around to different companies, and if one thing falls out, I still have other things I can fall back on – and it keeps me sharp. I don’t think people look so much at where you went to school but they want to see what you have done.’’

Economic realities are also driving more people into the Gig Economy to pick up a second source of income along side their full-time jobs.

Nicole Dominguez, 44 and a mother of three in Miami, works full-time as a docketing clerk at a law firm but signed up last year for extra work at Liveops, a work-at-home call center platform, to finance a trip to visit her son in Japan, who was in the military. But she took to it and stayed with it and her husband joined too; they are among the clients that makes South Florida one of Liveops’ biggest markets.

Dominguez sees her gig job as something she could do in retirement too, and she’s not alone. While millennials are typically identified with gigging, it’s even more prevalent among baby boomers, economists at Harvard and Princeton found. About half of Uber and Lyft drivers are over 50. Airbnb identifies woman age 60-plus as their most successful hosts and the fastest-growing community of providers. DogVacay reports that people over 50 constitute 25 percent of their pet-sitting providers.

Contract workers cost employers at least 25 percent less in benefits and give them the availability to hire contract work only when demand spikes. But employees likely would be more committed to the company vision, and some companies see the value of having their employees under one roof. Training costs can be high, too, particularly if a contractor doesn’t stay.

From his base at WeWork, a co-working center in Miami Beach swimming with freelancers, small business owners and startups, Brad Wells knows that all too well. He operates Alpha Current, a consulting business for small businesses and startups. The ability to hire contract workers just when he needs a particular expertise is critical to making his small business run optimally, he says, though there is a downside. “Once I get them trained, they find a full-time job with benefits.”

For the economy, though, the news isn’t all cheery. The cost of health insurance drives some giggers to forgo it all together, a risky financial move for them that also could lead to expensive emergency room treatment on the public’s dime. Home ownership has already started to fall nationally and could fall further. Social Security’s safety net could be stretched with fewer paying into the system at the same levels.

The rise of the Gig Economy has also put the spotlight on the lack of worker protections. A worker might end up being paid less than minimum wage, if a task takes longer than expected. If the worker can’t find a follow-up gig, he or she isn’t eligible for unemployment either. Some companies take advantage by hiring contractors to essentially be full-time employees without paying benefits. There’s even a term for it now: Perma-lancing.

Against this backdrop, the future of work is being debated from think tanks to water coolers.

“From a public policy standpoint, what is most interesting is that especially in Miami-Dade County, the Gig Economy, self-employment, nonemployer firms – it is all really critical to this economy,” said Greiner. “The critical question is, what are the things we can do to support the continued prosperity, success and growth of self employed, entrepreneurs and nonemployers? That’s everything from low-cost daycare to high-speed telecommunications infrastructure, better transportation, there is a whole number of things we can do.”

Some U.S. lawmakers have begun to introduce legislation that could form the framework for portable perks, such as parental leave, workers comp and tax advantaged retirement savings. Other moves are also in the works, such as in New York, where state lawmakers are considering allowing online job platforms to pay into a benefit fund for the workers who use their apps. New York City, meanwhile, has considered surcharges on riders to pay benefits for delivery and ride-hailing service workers.

Yet, this all comes as the economy has already fundamentally changed.

“This is the future of work,” Mulcahy said. “The full-time employee is getting to be the worker of last resort.”

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg


162 million: Number of people in the U.S. and the European Union who make money in the Gig Economy, according to a McKinsey report.

55 million: Number of people who made money by freelancing in the U.S. in 2016, a survey by the Freelancers Union and online freelance job board Upwork found. That’s about 35 percent of U.S. workforce.

40 percent: Percentage of corporations that plan to increase their hiring of contingent workers over the next five years, an EY survey found.

462,000: Number of nonemployer firms in Miami-Dade County, according to Census data.

85 percent: The share of companies that are non-employer firms in Miami-Dade County.

2 million: The number of guests that stay in an Airbnb accommodation on any given night, according to its CEO. That’s more than double the volume seen two years ago.

54 percent: The percentage of Uber and Lyft drivers who are 51 or over, according to a 2017 study by The RideShare Guy.


Here are nine jobs CareerCast says are the best Gig Economy jobs for 2017. These growing occupations already attract an outsized number of the self-employed. Data on wages and projected growth outlooks through 2024 came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Median salary: $44,343

Growth outlook: 29 percent


Median salary: $66,130

Growth outlook: 24 percent


Median salary: $81,910

Growth outlook: 29 percent


Median salary: $100,690

Growth outlook: 17 percent


Median salary: $81,320

Growth outlook: 14 percent


Median salary: $64,308

Growth outlook: 5 percent


Median salary: $67,290

Growth outlook: 12 percent


Median salary: $41,780

Growth outlook: 7 percent


Median salary: $27,760

Growth outlook: 4 percent


Here is some advice from Diane Mulcahy in her book, “The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking more Time off and Financing the Life You Want!”

▪ Build a portfolio of gigs, based on interests, goals and what you enjoy.

▪ Create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings and much less debt.

▪ Create your own safety net, with health insurance provided by the Affordable Care Act, and an IRA and 401K for the self-employed.

▪ The Gig Economy rewards hustle. Personal networks are critical.

▪ Develop your personal pitch that focuses on skills and value proposition rather than job titles and experience.

▪ Take time off between gigs.

▪ Bartering your services with other giggers is a good way to do the things you love in exchange for the things you hate (or aren’t so good at.)

▪ Be aware of when you are most productive and when you are not, so you can build your workday (or night) around that.


It’s hard to get a handle on sizing up the Gig Economy. “Gig workers are spread among diverse occupation groups and are not easily identified in surveys of employment and earnings,” wrote economists Elka Torpey and Andrew Hogan in a publication for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Census Bureau tracks non-employment firms and self-employment, areas that attract a high number of people — but not all — in the Gig Economy, and the most recent findings are from 2015. The Bureau of Labor Statistics last published data on contingency workers and alternative work arrangements in 2005. It took another survey in May and publication is expected later this year or early 2018.

None of these measures are perfect because they don’t capture people who work in the gig economy as side jobs along side traditional employment. And to be sure, there have always been independent house cleaners, handymen, freelance writers, musicians and tutors that typically don’t work full-time for a weekly paycheck and benefits. But what’s changed is how fast the phenomenon has spread into the middle class and white-collar jobs.

Still, the data does tell us that for the number of nonemployer firms, those that do not have employees, Miami-Dade tracks much higher than the national average, with nearly 85 percent of its registered corporations being nonemployer firms vs. 75 percent nationally, according to the Census Bureau’s 2015 survey. At the same time, 15 percent of workers declared they worked for themselves, 52 percent higher than the national average, and self-employment has been on the rise in Miami-Dade unlike nationally where it has dipped. In addition, Miami ranked No. 1 among 40 large metros in the Kauffman Foundation’s annual Index of Startup Activity this year; the index measures the rate new business creation.

Economists at universities and in the private sector have also tried to get a handle on this branch of the economy.

Larry Katz of Harvard University and Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that the percentage of Americans engaged in “alternative work arrangements” increased by more than 50 percent over the past decade, from 10 percent in 2005 or 15.8 percent in 2015. Nearly all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements, not full time jobs, their report said.

Kevin Greiner, senior fellow at Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, makes the point that these alternative work arrangements may start out as solo-practitioners but could become the job generators of tomorrow. And high rates of self-employment are found in some of Miami-Dade’s fastest-growing and highest-paying occupations.

In fact, even though Miami-Dade’s economy is driven largely by a service economy and the low-wage jobs that come with it, more than half of the occupations that draw high rates of self-employment nationally (more than 25 percent) pay more than the county’s median annual wage, said Greiner. These are occupations such as art directors, animators, exercise physiologists, property managers and construction managers.

Nancy Dahlberg