Data Ownership & Gig Economy
Knowledge Workers’ Perspectives
By: Joel John & Moses Sam Paul
It has been a year of transitions for workforces around the world. We have firstly gone remote, essentials only and socially distant. As the nature of work evolves, so do the skills required to adapt and survive in the new ecosystem.These transitions are not the result of Covid-19 alone. They have been in the works for years. The pandemic only accelerated the pace at which the changes happen. We know this as we have been speaking to individuals that have made career changes over the past few years to understand how the concept of ‘safety’ in professional life has evolved. As a part of finalising our models for the fellowship and deciding on the surveys we will soon be taking, we had an opportunity to speak to three people from distinct walks of life: Nilesh Christoper, Anand Murali and Aditi Surie. Two of them transitioned from an engineering role to being prominent personnel in the tech media industry. One of them is an academic at the fore-front of research about the gig economy in India. Here are our key learnings from each of them.
1. Nilesh Christopher
Nilesh transitioned towards being a journalist towards the final year of his engineering years. He understood that his passion lay in exploring stories and sharing them. We observed that his transition to Media occurred as a result of his years spent networking through digital-first platforms and an admission to Asian College of Journalism. Nilesh transitioned to working for the Economic Times, and then FactorDaily over time, to build a reputation for himself. Keeping in sync with how work has been evolving — he switched to a gig economy based role in 2019.
Our learning was that he was able to take this risk as he was not tied down with huge responsibilities given his age. He explained that being in the gig economy contributed to his overall well-being and income. His stories are routinely published on the likes of Wired and BBC, ensuring his reputation grows at a global stage. Something that might not have happened if he had tied himself down to an Indian publication for a secure job. Interestingly, Nilesh shared how our financial institutions are nowhere close to being prepared, to provide financial services for the gig economy. More importantly, India has a huge mental barrier to cross before freelancing becomes more mainstream. The cultural shift of seeing gig economy employment as the norm has not yet happened in India.
2. Anand Murali
Anand made a similar transition from being in a technical role to a media role in 2013. His break in Media came as a result of knowing a family friend who was setting up an early stage venture. In 2013, he used his experience at the venture to kick-start NextBigWhat in India. Since then he was involved with FactorDaily as an early stage employee. Unlike Nilesh, Anand did not make the transition to the gig economy. He shared that a major part of the reason was the fact that responsibilities change as one’s age increases. This is an interesting insight on how the window for taking risks in job transitions is highly correlated with one’s situation in their life. Anand also shared that much of the innovation in today’s newsrooms happen with younger generations taking the lead. This gives new age startups more of an advantage to pivot; where age old incumbents have much longer bureaucratic processes for enabling any change.
Our learning from Anand was — that large organisations struggle to upskill senior executives due to the culture of the firm. There is a gap in upskilling those within today’s workforce with tomorrow’s tools. Anand also brought to light the need to focus on mental health and making strict boundaries between work and personal life. For Anand this comes in the form of music, tech, travel and gaming. Those in the knowledge-economy struggle to distinguish between the two as the borders are now blurred with work being available with the flick of a button on their laptop. We have accommodated for this by exploring how communities play a role in ensuring the mental health of an individual in our research paper’s model.
3. Aditi Surie
Aditi is a professor for sociology and anthropology and, her view on matters relating to labor were distinctly different to others we spoke. She pointed out that instead of a gig based economy what we have today are platform economies where individuals are linked to Swiggy, Zomato or Uber. We need to be aware of the fact that they enjoy neither flexible work nor benefits. We learned that much of the law today is designed to protect platforms instead of protecting the interest of the average worker. She shared the fact technology alone can only accelerate the existing disparities and injustices of our work system. A simple example of this is how there are fewer women in today’s platform economies than there are men. Our systems need to be designed to be sensitive towards these causes. That change can happen only when we research and study these matters purely from an academic lens.
Work and our perception of it has been changing over the past two decades in India. As with many other trends — it changes gradually first, then suddenly. Our conversations shed light on how knowledge workers have been preparing for these transitions since the early 2010s. With life being increasingly digital, we have the tools to upskill and prepare for the changing nature of work. However, it needs to be accompanied with a cultural shift that acknowledges that the age old institutions that hire for 40 years at a stretch will no longer be there. Instead work will be gradually evolving over the course of an individual’s career as they transition from firm to firm. Individuals will have to choose between the freedom of being in the gig economy and the upsides of being with a single firm. Our key take-away for the month is that India’s educated people working at the forefront of technology have had the means to shift gears and accommodate for these changing trends in work. However, those that are at lower income groups may not have the means or know-hows on how to deal with the changing nature of work in the 21st century. One way their interest can be protected in a digital-first world will be through better use of their data. The focus for us in the coming months is to begin conversations with over 3000 individuals engaged with India’s informal work economy from six different cities. A tough task given the pandemic.
We’ll be publishing the full podcast and writeups in our website and substack newsletter soon. Watch out this space for more updates. If you’d like to join us in on the journey — drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Authors:
Joel John & Moses Sam Paul are Bharat Inclusion Research Fellows. They tweet at @joel_john95 & @MosesSamPaul.
About Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII):
Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII) is an incubator platform at CIIE.CO that provides entrepreneurs the domain knowledge, training, financial support, mentorship, and market access they need to bring inclusive, for profit-business to life. BII’s core design is to promote technology-driven entrepreneurship towards the delivery of affordable services to the “Bharat Segment- the poorest 200 million households in India who survive on less than $5 per person a day” through programs, fellowships, and funding where possible.
The program focuses on solutions leveraging technology, especially the India Stack. It integrates financial inclusion research with entrepreneurship and training to transform these solutions into scalable, viable and high impact businesses. We are keen on partnering with entrepreneurs who are driven by building next-generation digital services for India. Reach out to us at email@example.com or ask your questions in the comments section below.