People on the Land: A Personal Look at the Gig Economy

An unexpected turn of events accelerates a community development scholar’s entry into the gig economy. Equal parts challenge and opportunity, gigging is increasingly the way Americans work.

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Every once in awhile, life throws a change up. That’s how I found myself joining the gig economy several years earlier than planned.

State government in Illinois is a disaster. We stumbled through the 2015-2016 fiscal year without a budget. So, far as I am concerned, the governor and state legislature abdicated their constitutional responsibility to pass a budget, not that my opinion matters. The resulting fiscal tidal wave washed through state agencies, social service providers, and universities. It brought layoffs, early retirements, unpaid bills, and unserved citizens, especially the poor and disadvantaged in both rural and urban areas who bore a major part of the budget cuts.

Fortunately, I was not caught totally off guard by the state’s descent into fiscal oblivion. A year before leaving the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, I had begun to implement the beginning of a retirement plan, a website dedicated mainly to rural people and places on the land. By the time spring rolled around this year, it was populated with some pretty good free materials related in one way or another to country life, a few blogs and photos, and a website for a friend’s book that I edited. I had laid some groundwork for getting gig work, but that was supposed to be a few years off.

Surprise.

Fascinating term, gig.

It’s an old word that harkens to rural times past, describing a sleek rowboat designed for speed, not work, or a light, two-wheeled, one-horse carriage, according to Merriam Webster. Although I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been on a whirligig this year, I hope the experience has not made me a person of grotesque appearance. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say,

Gig, as a prefix with an added “a” can be a measure of a lot of something, such as a gigawatt or a gigabyte, or can become part of tons of other slang words, according to the Urban Dictionary. There seem to be a lot of gig workers in the United States, somewhere in the neighborhood of 46 million, according to some estimates. Perhaps we can coin a facetious term, gigagiggers (nowhere near a billion), who are an incredibly positive spur for creativity and job creation in rural communities. On the down side, the growth of gig employment is symptomatic of a larger plutocratic economy that has all too frequently been unable (unwilling) to create a broad range of full-time, permanent positions, especially in rural areas.

The author takes a selfie in his upstairs office in the small town of Bushnell, IL.
The author takes a selfie in his upstairs office in the small town of Bushnell, IL.

In another sense, to gig, as a verb, is a form of hunting with a multi-pronged spear. That sounds painful for the hunted. It is personally painful if you’ve been metaphorically gigged by your state, which is how I felt after leaving my life’s work. I thoroughly loved my 11-plus years at the institute, but could not physically or emotionally deal with the stress of expanded and new job responsibilities. I took my unplanned, but voluntary departure grudgingly, with much anxiety and no small amount of loneliness.

I’m gradually recovering from having to make a difficult and poorly timed decision. Fortunately, I have a pretty good and marketable skill set, experience working as a consultant, and a fair network across rural areas that I’m working to expand. I now fit the more contemporary definition of gig, hustling for shorter-, or even longer-term contract work that will provide a modicum of security and preserve some of my pension funds for later on.

Meanwhile, my generous insurance benefits, courtesy of the state, make working in the gig economy possible. I have set up the “business side” of my website that leans toward my strengths—writing, editing, research, and community consulting—and now am hard at it.

Amazingly, I figured out how to build the website on my own. That, in itself, was an experience, but turned out to be a confidence builder for the chief cook and bottle washer, even when our web provider offered only a tin can and a string for slo-o-o-w internet access in our small town. Fortunately, the speed seems to have improved quite a bit in the past year, perhaps with the addition of another tin can. Of course, the website is not perfect. I’m still learning. As I find time, I will upgrade it. The main thing is, I like it. For now.

I am also engaged in self-publishing. Right now, I have two books, one fiction and one nonfiction, in the final phases of production. I have started a historic book on the Wings Over Jordan Choir, and have another book of prose and poetry that I will get into production before too long. I also have a substantial amount of research completed on the roots of rural community development. This is a favorite topic, and, if I don’t starve, will eventually become a book with an accompanying website. I might also publish other authors with similar interests in the future.

Gig employment certainly beats unemployment. It allows some freedom to follow my muse, although it also has its personal pressures, like wondering where the next gig will come from. That is a constant fear. It’s also quite lonely at times, and it requires quite a bit of discipline to trudge upstairs to the office when there are so many other distractions. Self exploitation—working until all hours and during the weekends—can become a bad habit.

All in all, so far, so good. Soon after I made my decision to move on, I had five gig possibilities in sight, most of them with a rural slant. One of them has come through, about par for the course, I think. I signed my first contract with a group I have known for years about seven weeks after leaving the university. Oh happy day. Two of the five are still possibilities. Maybe a happy day or two in the future. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, it’s always time to keep scoping out the next great gig adventures.

Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

Topics: Economy
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