When Singaporeans hear the words “flower vase”, the first thing that probably pops into their heads is the image of a porcelain container, in which stands a bouquet of elegant flowers. And we naturally think of them because that’s exactly what a flower vase is, and what it’s used for.
26-year-old Jeremy Koh, however, pictures something entirely different. To him, those words call to mind the memory of standing for hours on end, smiling and ushering guests.
Oh, and getting paid to do so.
“My job was to just stand there and look good. To be seen and not heard unless I was spoken to first. Just like a flower vase, essentially.”
If Jeremy’s work sounds wonderful, it’s because it was. He was an “event talent”—a job created thanks to the gig economy.
Unlike someone in a traditional 9-5, Monday-Friday type of job, someone who works in the gig economy isn’t tied to one fixed source of employment. Instead, their source of income comes from various (often temporary) ad hoc assignments—or “gigs”. And their number is rising.
In March 2017, the then-Manpower Minister, Lim Swee Say, said that there were about 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, making up about 9% of resident employment. The following year, that number had risen to 223,500.
Which is hardly surprising. Good pay, the ability to dictate one’s own working hours, and the freedom to turn down projects all contribute to the popularity of this type of working arrangement.
But it’s not always sunshine and unicorns. Sometimes, the gig economy plain sucks.
Income Consistency is Key
Four years ago, when Jeremy completed his first year in university, he was introduced by a friend to a talent-management agency that supplied eloquent and good-looking twenty-somethings to event companies as brand personalities.
“I was basically paid about $30 per hour to give people samples of stuff they already wanted. I just had to convince them to sign up for the mailing list. But I love talking to new people so it didn’t even feel like a job!” he shares.
As you would expect, he almost always agreed whenever he was approached for other gigs. There were no downsides, or so it seems. Well, except for their regularity—something the full-time student never minded. Until life threw him a curveball.
About a year after his first gig, Jeremy’s mother fell ill and needed to be warded for two weeks. Thankfully, his family had enough to cover the substantial medical expenses but though he wasn’t required to draw on his savings, Jeremy knew that it wouldn’t have been enough to make a significant difference anyway.
“That incident really put things into perspective. From then on, I knew that no matter how good the money was, I couldn’t make a career out of doing events. Because they were so irregular, there was no way I could save much. I needed a stable source of income in case of emergencies like these.”
And here we have possibly the biggest pitfalls of working in the gig economy: unreliability. Because gigs might not come in frequently (or at all), it’s extremely difficult to plan for the future. Sure, you might be rolling in the dough on good days but the problem is that you won’t know how long you can/should make that sum last for. After all, how do you budget without knowing when your next paycheck is coming in?
Would spending $40 today result in me having to have to scrimp and save in the future? On that note, how do I start a savings plan when I don’t know how much I’m going to earn this month? What about money in case of emergencies?
A job in the gig economy means questions like these become impossible to answer. As attractive as the money might be, the work is just too unpredictable for comfort. Honestly, it would make more sense to have a steady, reliable stream of income instead of one that resembles a sputtering tap.
Thankfully, there’s existing platforms like MyCareersFuture.sg that’ll help ensure you can find that job with a steady pay in the first place. With their smart job-to-skill algorithm, fresh graduates and students like Jeremy will be able to find suitable employment before they enter the workforce.
Health is Wealth
“Don’t do it!” are Aisyah Ishak’s words when I ask for her thoughts on being part of the gig economy. As she related her story, I understood where she was coming from. There are downsides to the seemingly lucrative rewards of the gig economy.
Similar to Jeremy, the 28-year-old also worked on a freelance basis during her time in university as a driver for a well-known ride-hailing company back when it first arrived in Singapore.
“I just had to provide the necessary documentation and set up an account and that was it. From there, it was up to me to decide how much I wanted to make.”
And there was a lot just waiting to be earned. Because the ride-hailing model was new to Singapore, there were a lot fewer drivers which meant more pick-ups and money. The driver incentives were also a lot better than what she hears is available today.
However, the flexibility of Aisyah’s working hours proved to be a double-edged sword. If she didn’t work, she didn’t earn. Unlike the overlooked privilege of “coasting” that you get with a regular job, (because let’s face it, there are days in the office where we’re just unproductive) there are no days off if you want to make money in the gig economy.
This meant Aisyah spent countless hours cruising the city streets after already long days in school, hustling for a paycheck. Surge pricing was also a fickle mistress. Every cent was hard-earned.
The long hours took a toll on Aisyah’s physical and mental health. She was often exhausted and under the weather.
However, because Aisyah wasn’t an employee, she wasn’t entitled to any health benefits. Doctor’s fees were paid out of pocket, which kickstarted a vicious cycle of worrying about where the money was going to come from if she didn’t drive, pushing herself to work even harder, then falling sick again.
After six months of burning the candle at both ends, she quit. Aisyah shares that she learnt the value of every dollar and the importance of time management. But she still warns against the pitfalls of the gig economy, telling me that there are better ways to learn those lessons.
“There’s very little in the way of career progression in the long-run. Even if I became the best driver, so what? In this kind of work arrangement, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to enhance your skills and even if you do, they aren’t exactly transferable if you decide to move on to other things.”
Which is 100% true. The thing about the gig economy is that you’re paid handsomely to do one thing, and one thing only. There is no incentive to deviate from what you know or to pick up new skills that’ll keep you employable in the long-run.
35-year-old Denise Chia, a mother of two young boys, has been working as a freelance graphic designer for only about four years, after leaving her role as Associate Creative Director in a design firm.
A few months before her eldest was born, Denise and her husband sat down for a serious talk about their respective career plans. While Denise was enjoying her work and finding fulfillment in it, she had always known that she wanted to be a hands-on mum. Walking away from a career in design that she painstakingly built up was going to be a struggle.
Denise’s husband felt the same way. He knew what his wife’s job meant to her but much as he would’ve liked to help, practical decisions had to be made to ensure financial security. His senior position in a multinational corporation was too good to give up — career advancement prospects were great and the pay was good. It wouldn’t have made monetary sense for him to quit and cripple his family like that. And so, after much discussion, the couple came to a decision. To help Denise continue to find fulfilment in her work, while balancing the demands of being a hands-on mum, she would do freelance design work.
Denise made the switch knowing that she would not be able to keep on the pace she used to and take on the same number of projects.
Her boss understood. There were no hard feelings, and projects continued to be outsourced to her. Likewise, Denise’s friends always recommend her whenever their companies needed design work done.
All in all, everything worked out. Denise is a devoted mother to her two boys who’s still able to do what she loves.
“Without his [her husband] emotional and financial support, I wouldn’t have been able to have the best of both worlds. Granted, it’s not impossible but it would definitely have been extremely difficult.”
That said, Denise admits to missing the 9-5 life at times. Even though she now takes on projects from a whole host of companies, each with different deliverables (incidentally, something the creative in her is eternally grateful for), the lack of foreseeable financial independence is something she’s still getting used to. Especially as a mother.
Being a freelancer, Denise doesn’t have CPF contributions other than the ones she makes herself with the money from her gigs. This means that in the event her husband becomes incapable of working, or — touch wood — leaves her, Denise would be back at square one, only this time with two children to support as well.
“It’s not the safest or smartest way to live, but all things considered, it’ll do.”
“For now, at least,” she quickly adds.
Denise, Aisyah, and Jeremy are just three people who have worked, or are still working in the gig economy. And yet the problems they face are shared by the many others who have similar working arrangements.
In Denise’s case, it’s about retaining financial independence should the worst happen. For Aiysah, it’s about managing her time and health effectively while maximising her income. And as for Jeremy, what he needed was a job/career which would allow him to plan for his future.
It’s precisely for individuals like these and others that Workforce Singapore has designed a suite of programmes and services under its Adapt and Grow initiative.
The Adapt and Grow Town roadshows aim to help job seekers and freelancers look for new career opportunities or adapt to changing job demands.
Lest you misunderstand, the gig economy is not something to be feared. There are benefits that come with ad hoc employment and more flexible working arrangements.
However, it’s also worth remembering that there are two sides to every story. And sometimes, the very reason that you chose the gig economy is the one that will bite you when you least expect it.