Underemployment In the Gig Economy

Underemployment In the Gig Economy

As many readers of this blog know, I am currently attempting to balance freelance work and caring for my sick mother. One of the trickier aspects is finding work, but many people cite the current “gig economy” as being advantageous to people like me. However, like many others, my work situation would technically be qualified as “underemployment.”

Unlike unemployment, underemployment is defined as employment of highly skilled workers in low paying jobs, workers who are highly skilled but working in low skill jobs and part-time workers who would prefer to be full time. (For many workers in the gig economy, this is a consistent fact of life). According to a recent Forbes article on underemployment, a narrow focus on unemployment numbers and the perceived shame of being underemployed contribute to a lack of conversation. In fact, very few people are willing to come out and admit that they’re underemployed and frustrated, especially since studies are showing that low-paying jobs can be more detrimental to mental health than unemployment. There’s huge shame around being employed in a job that does not require your full skill set, and nobody wants to talk about it…until now.

Hi, my name is Gordon. I live in Chicago. And like many other people, I’m underemployed.


Let’s put this in perspective: about a year and a half ago, I had three freelance projects that were keeping me going. Losing one major one meant crowdfunding to cover personal expenses. When my mother got sick, I decided to move in with her at the end of my apartment lease. During that time, I had two small projects: one of which ended on great terms, and my current work consists of writing blog and web content for a specific industry. This work is for an agency that…well, it discusses how its employees are “rock stars” and “ninjas.” It’s sorely underpaying (think “content mill” levels) and trying to meet deadlines and maintain a consistent job search is rather tricky.

And some of you will be saying, “Looking for a job is a full-time job.” Well, add the day-by-day things that need to be done with Mom (including helping her up and down stairs for doctor’s appointments), that becomes even trickier. Although I manage to consistently apply for positions (both freelance and full time), performing due diligence – researching the company, assembling my resume and LinkedIn profile – takes a large amount of time. And as a caregiver, I also need to practice adequate self-care, like sleep and rest. Although my time management skills have improved, trying to find more gainful employment – even as part of the “gig economy” is still a challenge.


“But Gordon, “Why not consider job retraining in a field that’s hiring?” Several years ago, I received an Integrated Marketing Communications certificate from DePaul Kellstadt thanks to a WIA grant. Although I did experience a bump in employment, it has – for the moment – fizzled out. Plus, there’s some evidence that matching retrained employees to positions can be a challenge. (Especially since there’s a paradox – when applying for a freelance position as part of the “gig economy”, I am asked why I’m not working full time; when applying to a full-time job, I am asked why I want to leave consulting. Go figure).

And of course, there’s the ever popular, “You should be grateful you have a job…some people work three jobs to put food on the table.

And you’ve just proven my point.

We treat employment as a reward rather than a necessary activity. Working in the gig economy means doing two things: the work that pays the bills and the administrative work (accounting, networking, etc) that gets the work that pays the bills. Asking someone with my professional skills to “settle” for a low-paying job – and then shaming someone while they are actively seeking work – devalues the individual. We’re already struggling to move beyond work, to rebuild our lives…and unfortunately, the emphasis is placed too much on companies and businesses that are hiring. Even the idea of “building a small business” also entails a certain investment of time and effort, which many individuals experiencing underemployment simply do not have.

Last week, I remarked how I have learned much about friendship and community living through these turbulent times; unfortunately, there’s a corollary that comes with experiencing underemployment in the gig economy. That corollary is that many in our community still believe that there’s “something wrong” with someone who cannot simply move out of a rough situation and that employment isn’t a right, but a privilege.

And I hope that sharing my own experience, at the very least, softens that.

Please feel free to join the conversation by leaving your comments below or via our Facebook page. In addition, if you wish to reach out to me personally, please do so via my contact form.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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