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The rise of the "digital nomad"

For some people, the logical next stage from working in a flexible workspace is to actually live there as well. For many entrepreneurs working long hours, it makes perfect sense. This Guardian article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of “living on the job” as a digital nomad. It has stirred up strong feelings about work/life balance (and many of the comments are worth reading too).

WeWork has already established WeLive in a number of major US cities, and this GQ article “a week Inside WeLive, the Utopian Apartment Complex That Wants to Disrupt City Living” provides a detailed evaluation of what “living on the job” really means from the perspective of the author, Benjy Hansen-Bundy.

But what about workers at the less romantic end of the gig economy, such as book packers, translators or delivery drivers? New research from the Oxford Internet Institute with over 700 online labour platform workers in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, suggests that they are vulnerable to all the challenges but few benefits of the “digital nomad” lifestyle. The researchers note:

“The competitive nature of online labour platforms leads to high-intensity work, requiring workers to complete as many gigs as possible as quickly as they can and meet the demands of multiple clients no matter how unreasonable.”

In the UK, 6% of the workforce (1.8 million people) are currently employed on “zero hours contracts” meaning they do not have a guaranteed minimum number of paid working hours.

There are opposing views on the trend towards this type of employment. Supporters claim that it gives workers (and employers) significant flexibility, while detractors note the absence of benefits such as pension, sickness or holiday pay. Responsibility for provision of these benefits has recently been the subject of a number of highly contested legal cases.

The most high profile examples are new businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo, but the sector also includes professional occupations such as video producers and other creative roles. You can read more about the so-called “gig economy” in this BBC article.

Line graph showing number (thousands) of people in employment reporting they are on zero-hours contract, October to December 2000 and October to December 2017. In 2001 this number is approximately 225,000, rising to approximately 900,000 by 2017

Source: Office of National Statistics Labour Force Survey, April 2018

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