The term “gig economy” was first coined by journalist Tina Brown in 2009. Brown wrote about the trend of workers pursuing “a bunch of free-floating projects, consultancies and part-time bits and pieces while they transacted in a digital marketplace.” But despite the hype and misconception that the gig economy evolved from apps, it’s not a novel concept. In fact, the term “gig” was frequently used by Jazz musicians as early as 1905 to refer to a live performance job.
So where did it all begin? Prior to the industrial revolution and until the Victorian era, people worked multiple jobs to piece together a decent living. The “gig economy” of unpredictable employment patterns sprang up when industrial jobs were seasonal. Others had a trade by skill and title (i.e. a blacksmith or barber) and worked additional small jobs like renting out a store, selling goods, being a laborer or teacher. Like people earning money through the gig economy today, these individuals lived in a world of job uncertainty—they had independence but frequently worried about making ends meet or failing.
Then in the 1930s, there was the Great Depression. Coming out of that, Americans wanted security and stability above all else. In that decade, we saw significant clashes between labor and capital that resulted in workers organizing themselves in new ways through the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). In doing so, workers demanded better lives, and the state guaranteed that, leading to the traditional workspace and labor laws we know today.
Fast forward to 1995. Craigslist is introduced, providing a platform for San Francisco-based online classifieds devoted to jobs, items wanted and for sale, gigs, services, resumes, housing, and more. This re-introduction of gig work helped pave the way for other gig platforms like Elance (now known as Upwork) in 1999, followed by the launch of Airbnb in 2008 and eventually Uber, Taskrabbit, Postmates and others. Yet, despite today’s app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles a workforce that existed prior to the industrial age.