Gigging into the future

I was asked recently what I did for a living. I replied that I was a freelance teacher and teacher trainer, working for an assortment of organizations, companies and individuals.  However, what I am part of is the ‘gig economy’. A ‘gigger’, if you like. But what is it, and how will it affect English language teaching in the future?

Gig work originally referred to jazz club musicians in the 1920s, who would ply their trade working in different clubs, more often than not without any form of social benefits.

The ‘gig economy’ was coined at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2009, where the unemployed made a living by ‘gigging’, or working in several part time jobs concurrently. However, it is only this year that the phrase has taken on a wider meaning. This has been due to the rise of companies like Uber and Airbnb.

So what are the characteristics of the gig economy, and some of the consequences for language teachers?

Firstly, is the use of technology. The digital revolution has ushered in an expansion of the Internet and improvements in software which have led to a decoupling of location and work. Workers are increasingly mobile and can work from almost anywhere. This is also known as ‘remote working’, and its practitioners as ‘nomads’. Teachers therefore will have to embrace the new technology, and use it to meet the needs of students who are increasingly looking for a learning environment which is more flexible and geared to their needs.

Secondly, the vast majority of work is temporary. Nomads are in a position to accept or reject the work they undertake and companies are able to hire workers for short term projects or portfolio work provision. Teaching in one school to classes of twelve or more students, eight hours a day, five days a week is probably a thing of the past. If teachers aren’t careful, zero-hours contracts will become the norm.

The nature of the work also tends to be more flexible. A ‘gigger’ has more leeway to determine his or her hours of work, and can even work on multiple projects at once. This may involve doing a few hours a week of teaching in a school, combined with working on an online training course, and then giving lessons via Skype.

Fourthly, work is more often than not found through networking or direct contact. Gone are the days of scouring the wanted ads for jobs. Teachers will need to be prepared to start building a personal brand and market themselves at conferences, online and through word of mouth.

Finally, a lot of gig work involves peer-to-peer exchange. It appears that the salaried employees in big corporations are being replaced by the 18th century entrepreneurs described by Adam Smith. Teachers need to be prepared to go out and actively find work, and be prepared to to deal with individuals and organizations seeking teachers.

What is fairly clear is that the gig economy is here to stay. A study by Intuit, for example, predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. And we can notice similar tendencies in Brazil with the exponential growth in the number of personal trainers and cottage industries producing cakes, for example.

However, the transition to becoming a gigger will not be straight forward for everyone. It requires a change of attitude, and a whole new way of earning a living. As Hilary Clinton said recently on the campaign trail:

“This on-demand, or so-called gig, economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”


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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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