In 1995 I quit a regular (albeit wildly un-remunerative) job in publishing to come to London and temp for a few months. A year of editing had taught me extreme pedantry and how to type at 70wpm; I thought this enough to get me a choice of well paid jobs, maybe even as much as £8 per hour. That dizzying prospect was as far as my forward planning stretched.
It was miserable. The macro graphs may suggest otherwise but even in London I experienced nothing resembling a boom. The rosy picture painted by my female friends – of long glamorous gigs in the media sector, generally ending in an appreciative review and job offer -failed to materialise. The closest I came was an evening of free curry and PowerPoint at Saatchi’s (I boasted about this). More usually it was a couple of days here and there typing letters for insurance salesmen, on pre-mouse green screen computers. I had to sign up to a dozen agencies, calling them each daily, to have any chance of covering the rent and economy bag of Iceland potato croquettes.
I learned a lot. Above all, that there isn’t a steady demand for 23 year old male Oxford educated temps. My cv met with incredulity, and an intelligent guess that I must be somewhat flawed to be in this position. But I also gained a lasting apprehension towards very flexible work, even though the flexible labour market ultimately paid off for me and gave me a far better return than becoming a lifer at a multinational might have.
I don’t much enjoy remembering 1995-6 and the risks I took, despite the stakes being low; I had no kids, the worst that awaited me was a shameful shuffle back to my parents’ place and months of applications to banks and accountancy firms. This astonishingly good piece on the gritty reality of the Sharing Economy shows how much worse it may be now, despite or even thanks to the wonders of new technology. Please read it – it is fantastic journalism. My experience of needing to call several agencies a day for work is the reality of this new economy – people with one phone for Uber, another screen for TaskRabbit, ads on Craiglist, and so on. But this time for (clearly inspirational) parents with nowhere else to go.
Please read it.
As a special adviser I occasionally met people evangelical about the sharing economy and the possibilities on offer. I have nothing against the idea that there are missing markets out there, extra useful work with willing buyers and sellers on each side of the bargain. But as a model for an entire economy it feels dismal. Just because technology makes it possible for the world to be run in an atomised way, with millions of odd-job men and women, doesn’t mean that this is the best or fairest institutional design.
You don’t need to read Coase to know that there is a reason for firms to exist. Seven years after my time as a temp I wrote my MBA dissertation on Loyalty and how vital commitment is within a firm – in the customer relationship, and towards employees. Finding data to back up this soppy notion was a doddle. Investing in your staff, rather than trading them, is so often the obvious and intelligent thing to do.
I was lucky to be able to move up and away from having to trade myself daily. It sometimes feels like, as an economy, we have moved too much the other way.