Why the gig economy fits well with the lives of Baby Boomers

Robert De Niro - a Baby Boomer - in The Intern with Anne Hathaway

We Baby Boomers are benefiting significantly from the gig economy, says author, speaker and optimist Tim Drake. Not just as consumers by it providing lower prices and more convenience, but as participants too.

It’s an important bolt-on to something bigger, he says, enabling new ways of doing business to emerge, and a fresh outlook on what ‘work’ is. But is it something we should think about taking a much more active role in?

Baby Boomers fit into what I call Generation Cherry. Indeed, that is the title I gave my book on the subject. The profile is slightly wider than Baby Boomers, as Generation Cherry covers people in their fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties (possibly even forties and nineties). We can be classed as one broad group, and are so called, because we had a cherry on everything.

We had free primary, secondary or tertiary education. We benefitted from an excellent, free Health Service. The Beatles, the Stones, Queen and Dylan were fresh and fantastic. Jobs were plentiful – you could pick and choose. And most jobs had occupational pensions. You could afford to buy a house – a big cherry that.

And the biggest cherry of all? We are retiring in good health with a few decades ahead of us to take a second bite. We should be primed for new adventures before we even think about getting old.

But the cherry is in danger of shrivelling. Pensions are skinny, or non-existent, and redundancy stalks the land for mature workers. Many of us will have to keep working to afford the years ahead. A recent Old Mutual Wealth survey showed 21% of people retiring in the UK were still paying off their mortgages, and 30% were still in debt.

So the gig economy turns up to keep the cherry juicy. Highly convenient and very welcome. But the reality is that the gig economy provides only part of the answer, not the entire cavalry riding over the hill to save us.

In a job-dissolving world, self worth replaces identity

Retiring and losing the ability to say you are a “teacher” or a “government worker” when someone asks what you do can leave you feeling wobbly. And it’s a feeling echoed by those working in the gig economy too – as fewer and fewer people have jobs with job titles that define them.

If we don’t have a reassuring job title to confirm our status and importance, self confidence and a well founded self regard need to come from elsewhere.

This is especially true when the demand from employers for “flexibility“ from employees often translates into an implication that job insecurity is part of the package. And as an intrinsic characteristic of the gig economy, flexibility is here to stay.

So if job security is no longer a realistic attribute to strive for, and as our traditional sense of identity is weakened, we must look to overcome this and deliver the flexibility demanded in today’s world of work on our own terms. To achieve this, and to feel comfortable with ourselves, we therefore need to build a strong sense of self-worth – of being in control – of being Captains of our Souls.

Someone with a large pension pot to draw on has a less urgent requirement for any of this. They have both the financial security and the comfort of a career successfully completed to shield them from the cold winds now blowing. Well done to them.

For those of us who haven’t been so lucky, we still have a need either for a core income stream, or a number of top-up sources of income to see us through the years ahead. There are lots of opportunities out there, but we need a robust sense of self worth to take advantage of them.

To capitalise on those opportunities, we need to create value in the marketplace, so our services are, and continue to be, in demand. The confidence that we have the ability to create that value will come from the well-grounded sense of control.

Building a sense of autonomy to ensure we feel in control

We are talking here about mindset. Mindset in this context requires effort. If you don’t charge your smartphone, it won’t work too well. Similarly we need a source of electricity running through us to make sure we are in optimum condition to perform and take advantage of the second bite of the cherry, and not just trundle on trying to survive on a meagre pension, on a grey slide towards death.

My approach is to work on the Four Autonomies. There is quite a lot involved, but the nub of it is that they give a balanced, consistent and reliable source of energy and confidence.

The first Autonomy is Earning. This means that however well off you may or may not be, having a source of income you generate yourself, keeps you plugged into society in a real way. You know the value of things, you have financial resilience. You have skin in the game, rather than being a spectator.

The Second autonomy is Learning – so you are still growing, are switched on, and can participate as an equal. You are either learning and growing, or shrivelling and dying.

The third is Giving, so you can benefit from its huge, proven psychological rewards, including finding meaning in what you are doing.

And the fourth is Recharging, so you can relax, recover, and find new energy, both physically and cognitively. Practising all four keeps you constantly re-booted.

All four autonomies reinforce each other. There will be knock-backs of course, but if you practise all of them, you will begin to feel a sense of freedom. Crucially, you will no longer feel a victim of events. You will be in control.

How does the gig economy fit in?

The sharing economy; the gig economy; the on-demand, peer, or platform economy – are all names for the same thing. At its broadest definition, they refer to a world where workers take on individual projects and other freelance work rather than signing on with one long-term employer.

A more commonly held understanding is that it refers to organisations that are typically online and have ratings-based marketplaces. In a long, but fascinating, insight into the gig economy, an article in The New York times confirms that the gig economy is still evolving, is still confusing, and seems to work best for people whose purpose in life is to become something larger, and more fulfilling – being an actor or artist – and that gigging is a useful, and sometimes critical, financial support.

Several of my friends have useful top up incomes from the gig economy – stamp dealing, Airbnb, advising on social media, etc – but in each case they are add-ons to reasonable pensions, or other constant income streams. Which combined leave them time to follow their passions (and the other three Autonomies).

In the same vein, I’d argue that while most of us on that skinny or non-existent pension need some form of additional money, many will actually need a new core income, and should find that in doing something they really want to do. The gig economy is unlikely to provide that on two fronts – its intrinsically flexible nature means it’s not reliable or lucrative enough to pay the mortgage. And as importantly, the reality is that’s it’s not always fulfilling.

It may be you can make the richness and multiplicity of the gig economy work for the entire satisfaction of your financial and emotional needs. If so, that’s terrific. But for most of us, that’s a big challenge. While gigging is exciting – it is varied, it is flexible and it gives choice – it can also be uncertain and often requires exhausting self-marketing. This core income is therefore likely to be in the real world, rather than online.

Some may find that disappointing, and others buck that trend completely. Some mature souls – indeed like Neville Hobson – have built up successful online businesses – but it takes time, expertise and application. It is not for the faint-hearted.

So for many of us this regular, reliable and necessary core income is likely to be in the real world. Just like for actors and artists in the New Yorker article, for the most part gigging is a useful financial crutch, rather than a provider of meaning and satisfaction that will make the next twenty or thirty years of their life exciting and fulfilling.

And that is no bad thing. Finding satisfaction and fulfilment in your work comes from adding value. And for Generation Cherry, adding value offline is where we can really thrive.

Creating value – especially for older people – stems largely from the special type of value they can create

Creating value at work is how you keep your job, and get promoted. Or build a business. Obviously your skills are crucial, but the great added value that members of Generation Cherry can deliver is the ability to create distinctive social as well as economic value within the organisation he or she is working with.

For example:

  • providing humour and humanity when pressure induces stress
  • bringing enthusiasm to a project that is running out of steam
  • providing resilience and positivity when things get difficult
  • having integrity when people are tempted

These are life skills. They are also skills that well-rounded younger people can contribute. The difference – and it is an important difference – is that if you have developed the four autonomies, you are in control. You will have a well-grounded sense of self worth, be plugged in, and ultimately be a person with recognisable integrity. And people can smell integrity.

Adopting the Four Autonomies shifts your mindset and gives you an independence, confidence and authority that coupled with business and life experience, takes you a considerable way to becoming a key player in any organisation. In Seth Godin’s words, a linchpin.

The skills outlined above are invaluable, and have the additional benefit that they are unlikely to be replaced by artificial intelligence – or Augmented Intelligence as Neville Hobson more accurately calls it. They give Generation Cherry operators a significant competitive advantage in the workplace.

They are skills, however, that tend to operate more easily and effectively in the flesh and blood world of traditional offline business. The gig economy tends to operate on transactions, with some trust built in, but the traditional, offline world, operates more on genuine relationships. Relationships only develop financial value consistently to both parties when trust is developed over time.

Trust, as the Dutch saying goes, arrives on foot, and leaves on horseback. Integrity, trust and consistency are more easily and more genuinely delivered in the traditional offline world where humans interact in person, than by the last rating or online like. And importantly, they are more satisfying and fulfilling – and effective – to deliver face to face with other human beings.

So gig away, but put more effort into creating a core income stream in the real world

Generation Cherry

The gig economy is a heaven-sent opportunity to generate welcome income. It is varied, flexible and has the potential for endless creativity and value creation. But unless you are lucky and hit a golden streak – which you may do – the more solid virtues of the offline world may offer greater opportunity to find a core income that provides, satisfaction and fulfilment, as well as money.

Yet again Generation Cherry – and the Boomers within in – has the luck to be offered second bite of that cherry. This time by the addition of a whole new economy to get our teeth into.

Yes, the gig economy is wonderful. But it’s the dessert. Don’t forget the traditional economy is still likely to be a more rewarding main course.

Tim DrakeTim Drake (73) was a director of BBDO (UK), the advertising agency, before co-founding and running a retail business for fourteen years (Cobra Sports), which had to be sold for £1 in the recession of 1993. “A gem of a company” was how 3i, the investment bank described it. He claims that following the setback, Homer Simpson saved his life. Watching The Simpsons and laughing each day with his young children, kept him sane – and positive. So aged 49 he joined the gig economy before it really existed.

He gigged from home, starting CEO Think Tanks, consulting, speaking at conferences, and writing books. His most recent book – “Generation Cherry” hits the challenge of the generation who had a cherry on everything – jobs, free education, affordable houses to buy, the Stones and the Beatles – and addresses the split we’re seeing at retirement between the Have Yachts and Have Nots. The latter – those made redundant, or with skinny or non-existent pensions – need a rethink of their future. Generation Cherry shows how to make the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years of life the most enjoyable and fulfilling yet.

Yes, it is possible to have a second bite of the cherry.

Generation Cherry: Retired? Redundant? Rethink! Powerful Strategies to Give You a Second Bite of the Cherry

Publisher: RedDoor Publishing Ltd
Paperback, 224 pages
Published January 19, 2017
ISBN-10: 191045320X
ISBN-13: 978-1910453209

Purchase at Amazon UK (Kindle edition) and more Amazon and other online bookstores.

(Top: The Intern with Robert de Niro and Anne Hathaway – a perfect example of a Boomer and the gig economy. Photo via Movies with Mae.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.