Explore how the gig economy 'works' — or doesn't 'work' — for youth education and employment. Consider the pros and cons in an ever-evolving job landscape.
Over the past decade, the gig economy has significantly transformed the world of work. Whether it’s graduates exploring prospects on social media or high school students picking jobs off delivery apps in their spare time, the gig economy has become a favoured source of work, notably among the youth. This trend was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting a 23% expansion in the market. In Malaysia, over 26% of the workforce, equivalent to 4 million freelancers, are part of the gig economy, surpassing the global average of 20%!
The Statistics Department revealed that an overwhelming 97.71% of workers employed in p-hailing services are youths aged 15 to 30; the rest are senior citizens aged 60 and above. Among these youths, nearly 40% are high school graduates who hold Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia Vokasional (SPMV). Additionally, 23.24% hold a diploma or equivalent, whereas the remaining 11.79% hold a bachelor’s degree. The employment models within the gig economy offer a fast track into the workforce, making it an attractive option for students with limited academic qualifications.
The gig economy refers to a sector of informally-employed workers working under zero-hour or short-term contracts, engaging in casual jobs rather than formal employment. Jobs considered under the gig economy include freelance writing, online tutoring, social media influencing, and e-hailing and p-hailing services. Thanks to the increasing influence of technology, this workforce is becoming more mobile — free to work from anywhere and at any time! With a simple tap on apps like Uber, Grab, and Upwork, gig workers are granted easy access to a range of jobs requiring little to no qualifications.
Apart from work preferences, economic factors also contribute to the rise of the gig economy, a trend that has become prominently evident since the pandemic. In times of economic uncertainty, individuals may lean towards gig work as a means to generate income and overcome unemployment. One factor contributing to the current unemployment rate is the mismatch between available jobs and individuals’ skills. Graduates holding academic qualifications in a specialised field may face intense competition in their industry, leading them to accept work for which they are overqualified.
When discussing the gig economy, flexibility often takes centre stage as a compelling advantage. Unlike full-time employees, gig workers can choose from an array of work options that suit their preferences, including duration and working hours. Whether it's the convenience of working from home, selecting specific days, or dedicating a few hours each week, this flexibility facilitates the balance between family schedules and work responsibilities.
The allure of the gig economy extends further to opening up multiple income streams. Instead of relying on a single source of work, gig workers have the opportunity to diversify and take on as many gigs as they desire. This diversification not only offers extra earnings but also allows individuals to explore different interests and talents, potentially guiding them towards a fulfilling career path.
Entrepreneurial opportunities are yet another enticing aspect of the gig economy, providing the promise of becoming one’s own boss. Freelancers can showcase their talents by building a personal brand online, utilising social media and other digital platforms. This avenue allows individuals to express their creativity, innovation, and autonomy in their work, without the need for specific qualifications.
On the surface, the gig economy appears to be a win-win situation for individuals seeking to earn an income without the need for higher education. However, beneath the surface, the reality is different from what it seems.
While they help pay bills and generate additional income, gigs themselves are temporary and lack the stability and security of permanent employment. The unpredictability of the gig economy can result in fluctuating incomes, posing obstacles for youths with limited savings to plan for the future or meet increasing financial obligations.
This lack of security becomes even more pronounced during times of illness or emergencies, as gig workers have no access to paid leave. Moreover, gig workers often do not receive the benefits typically associated with full-time jobs, such as healthcare coverage, leaving them solely responsible for the financial burden of unexpected events. Furthermore, gig workers in Malaysia are not protected under the Work Act 1995 and other labour ordinances, which would entitle them to minimum wage benefits. Thus, individuals in the gig economy may lack recourse if they encounter unfair treatment or unjust practices at work.
Individuals without higher education are particularly at risk of the dangers of the gig economy, which can hurt their long-term career growth and skill development. They may find themselves trapped in a perpetual cycle of gig work, never reaching the financial stability necessary to secure stable employment or pursue higher education. This situation leads to exhaustion, stress, and a poor work-life balance, as income remains uncertain and upward career mobility unattainable.
Managing your own schedule, enjoying multiple income streams, and prioritising life first and work second are empowering pros of the gig economy. However, it’s important to consider the possible cons too! In the gig economy, there’s never a steady paycheck, and the lack of company benefits or employment coverage can leave individuals vulnerable. Therefore, youths should approach gig work as a short-term solution rather than a sustainable long-term career choice.
For high school graduates contemplating between the gig economy and pursuing higher education, it is important to make well-informed decisions. While higher education may require a few more years compared to entering the workforce directly through the gig economy, it has invaluable advantages. It equips you with in-depth knowledge and allows you to explore your passions within a structured learning environment. This will open doors to a greater range of career prospects, leading to even greater earning potential and personal growth. According to the Ministry of Higher Education, individuals with tertiary education tend to earn higher salaries than those without. Supporting this finding, the Statistics Department states that in 2020, the median monthly salary for gig workers was RM2,062, whereas degree holders earned RM3,499!
By embracing higher education as a foundation for growth and combining it with the opportunities provided by the gig economy, youths can create a sustainable future, leveraging the best of both worlds to thrive in an ever-evolving job landscape!
Afrina Arfa is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Finance and Economics (Honours) at Taylor's University. She spends her time indulging in economical news, hoping to inspire others to think beyond the constraints of society.
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