The gig economy is nothing new – it was standard practice in the 18th century

The uber pool of the 18th century. James Pollard / Google Art Project

The Taylor Report, the UK government’s recent major review of modern work, paid particular attention to the “gig economy”. This is the idea that the traditional model of work – where people often have a clear career progression and a job for life – has been upended. It encompasses “self-employed” Uber drivers to the web developer freelancers and it allows workers more freedom – but also denies them benefits and protective regulation.

While it might seem that long-established ways of working are being disrupted, history shows us that the one person, one career model is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to industrialisation in the 19th century, most people worked multiple jobs to piece together a living. Looking to the past uncovers some of the challenges, benefits and consequences of a gig economy.

The diaries of three men in 18th-century Britain that I have found give a fascinating insight into how middle class people – the supposed beneficiaries of today’s gig economy – made multiple employments work. Edmund Harrold, a resident of Manchester in the early 18th century was a barber by training and title. He rented a small shop, shaved customers’ heads, bought and sold hair, and crafted wigs. In the hours unfilled by this he worked as a book dealer, and eventually as an auctioneer, selling various items in alehouses within Manchester and in outlying towns. He lent out money when he had it, earning 10% interest on his holdings.

Thomas Parsons’s diary. The Huntington Library Collections.

Another enthusiastic embracer of the gig economy was Thomas Parsons, working as a stone carver in the city of Bath in 1769, as well as an amateur scientist – work that we might normally classify as leisure. In the West Country, John Cannon took jobs as an agricultural labourer, excise man, failed maltster, and teacher.

Like people earning money through the gig economy today, the three men were thrown into a world of precariousness. They had independence but fretted frequently about having enough money to pay bills, and feared the potential for failure. Parsons agonised about his ability to pay his debts, noting in one entry:

Am in debt and know not how to pay. This gives me great uneasiness – what a multiplicity of concerns have I to employ my thoughts!

In one entry, Harrold thanked God for “tolerable business” and noted that he lived very comfortably. By the next month, he would write that he was “ill set for money”, that he had very little work, and described being “in great straite what to do”.

All three diarists earned a comfortable, though modest subsistence for tradesmen of the time, earning between £50 and £70 a year, which made them part of the growing middle class in terms of income. But in an economy of multiple jobs, their income was precarious, and this had a big impact on their lives. Cannon described himself as the “tennis ball of fortune”.

More than the money

Money was a concern, but the diaries make clear that, like today, work was also about more than pay. The experiences of these three men show that people chose their work because different jobs offered different forms of fulfilment. Some tasks earned them money, but other roles gave them social status. In some cases, they even judged fulfilment and the status these jobs gave them as highly as material gain.

John Cannon’s diary. Glastonbury Antiquarian Society

The opportunity for networking, building reputations and power could be equally as important as the cash earned. In fact, the value of work in terms of status and income could have an inverse relationship. Parsons made most of his money from his stone-cutting business rather than his intellectual pursuits, but it was his scientific experimentation that conferred the most status. That status, in turn, helped him get contracts.

Historical accounts of the gig economy remind us that we need to think about work as more than a form of wage earning, but as something crucial to our social and cultural lives. We define ourselves according to the jobs that we do. Though the recently-released Taylor review of Britain’s gig economy focuses on wages, benefits, and regulation, it also clearly recognises work as an experience. The report is peppered with words like “happiness” and “aspiration”.

Plus, we might notice that work – even gig work – depends upon status. Today, workers relying on online platforms for work depend upon their user rating. Status and employment go hand-in-hand. And activities that help a person build status blur the distinctions between work and leisure, or unpaid and paid work. Work, for men like Parsons, Harrold and Cannon, was a social practice. It was not only a productive activity to support themselves, but was rather an undertaking that established skill, independence and self-worth.

What counts as work?

The gig economy considered in a historical context challenges us to better define the simple category of “work”. Should we define work as tasks undertaken for pay? Or should we include productive labour that is not paid?

Harrold was the nominal breadwinner of his family, but the household also depended upon his wife’s work. Sarah rented a room in their house to lodgers, sold secondhand clothing and washed other people’s clothes. For these tasks, she earned money. But like many women in the 18th century (and today), much of Sarah’s work was unpaid. She cared for children, baked bread, and brewed ale. These tasks sustained the household and its reproduction, but because they were unpaid, they remain unrecognised as work. Even though she spent her days working, Sarah would have been listed as having no occupation in formal tax or census records.

In today’s gig economy, more and more informal domestic tasks are becoming forms of paid work. Will accounting for these help us to better recognise the invisible work that takes place in the household?

The gig economy certainly poses challenges to the well-being of workers. The disruption that it brings, however, offers an opportunity to better account for the diversity of different kinds of work that take place in society, and to recognise the people who perform it.