Laying underneath a Ford car, Michael Zaccaria placed a bracket right below the muffler. Two years, day after day, bracket after bracket, Zaccaria was becoming tired of being the proverbial cog in a machine. Working on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company in Oakville, Ont., this repetitive motion soon became unbearable. On the morning of May 2, 2017 he woke up dreading the day ahead of him. He knew he had had enough and it would be one of his last days at a traditional job.
Six hours into his 10-hour shift, Zaccaria looked at the clock and noticed it was lunch time already. Palms clammy, sweat glistening on his forehead and a knot of nerves in his stomach, he walked towards the human resources office and took a deep breath. He placed his two-weeks notice on their desk and told them he must quit.
Wearing his light blue shirt with black shorts and a hat on backward, he exited the office and exhaled a sigh of relief. He finally felt the freedom he needed from his job to pursue his dream as an entrepreneur.
Zaccaria is one of a growing number of millennials who have chosen to forego the typical nine-to-five job to take on gig-type occupations including contracting or freelancing. According to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives survey, one-third of millennials are trading in these traditional jobs to join the gig economy– a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs.
When Zaccaria, 25, started working at the Ford Motor Company in 2016, he planned to quit by Feb. 24, 2017. As his employment progressed, Zaccaria said he experienced depression and it was a dark place because he felt as if he had no value: “Every day I would contemplate, ‘What is the point of this?’ I would always think to myself, ‘If this is what I’m meant to be doing and I’m not enjoying it, then what’s the point in living if my life is all about making money from a job that I fuckin’ hate.”
But when that specific day passed and he was still working there, he strategically planned to quit and would often brainstorm ways to get out of his job during the shifts.
After he finally quit, he started to produce a podcast called Wut R U Sayin on a full-time basis, and joined a startup team called Hamilton Rising. This is a media company that produces video content about the culture, heritage and entertainment in Hamilton. Zaccaria is the operations manager and his roles consist of shooting videos, photo and video editing, and sales marketing.
Zaccaria said he enjoys working in the gig economy because he loves to learn– which makes him feel accomplished: “I could go home and not have made any money during the day but I learned three things and I feel so good because I think as humans, we get fulfilment through learning,” he said.
With a lot of the nine-to-five jobs, however, workers are progressively learning more but by year 10 or 20, it stays the exact same. Nothing changes, he said.
Nearly one-half of on-demand workers, freelancers and entrepreneurs work in the gig economy for greater work-life flexibility, according to an Intuit Canada survey.
Ashley Perras, an independent distributor selling personal care products for SeneGence International, said she quit her traditional job because she needed to have a flexible work schedule while raising her children Annika, 4, and one-year-old Xavier.
Perras, 34, worked as a commodities buyer and administrative assistant at Samuel, Son & Co. in Etobicoke, Ont. for five years. When she had her first child it was easy for her to work 40 hours per week because her husband was working from home. But after her husband accepted a full-time job, Perras had no choice but to put their daughter in daycare throughout the week.
Perras said she became depressed after returning from her maternity leave because she could only spend time with her family on the weekends and during the evenings if she wasn’t exhausted from working all day.
“It crushed a little bit of my soul,” Perras said. “Why did we have a child if all we were doing was driving her to daycare and picking her up and taking her home? … I had all these dreams in my head of all the things I wanted to do with my kids. I wanted to take them to the park, I wanted to go places to play and have playdates.”
After having her second child, Perras said it was ‘killing her soul’ to think of another person raising her children in daycare while she was working. So she and her husband decided that it was best for her to quit her traditional job and start her own business.
While working her traditional job, Perras said it was difficult to have a schedule imposed upon her. As an entrepreneur, however, she is able to control her schedule and work around her family.
“I can sit at the computer or even work on my smartphone while my son has a nap or after I put the kids to bed for the night,” she said. “Having that flexibility of being able to do my work through the internet and through emails is wonderful because I can work around my family’s schedule. I get to do it when I have the time to do it.”
While some people seem to be choosing gig-type work, it may not be a personal choice for others if there are no options available to them. According to the CCPA study, 55 per cent report that the gig economy is their only way to make a living right now.
Trish Hennessy, one of the two authors of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives survey, said people go into the gig economy for many different reasons that are sometimes not necessarily their own decision because of the tough labour market.
Hennessy said the millennial generation entered the workforce during the Great Recession in 2008-09 and they saw their parents lose their jobs. Millennials found themselves unemployed or underemployed for a long period following graduation. So their careers have been unstable as opposed to an upward ladder in the workforce, and they needed to create a new path for themselves– the gig economy.
“The gig economy is a good option in a tough labour market,” said Hennessy, who is also the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario. “When there are not a lot of lifelong career-type jobs available and people are not seeing the markets open up in a huge way, then people look to all other options available to them and the gig economy.”
This is the case for Lauren Catlin– a real estate sales representative for Royal LePage State in Hamilton.
It was a cold winter morning in January 2015 when Catlin, 30, returned to work from vacation in the Dominican Republic. After being away for a week, she anticipated a busy day as the project manager for a web development company called Carbonated Interactive. But when she started her computer and opened her email, she noticed an empty inbox. There were no new emails– which was odd for her after taking time off of work.
Like every morning on her eight-hour weekdays, her boss entered her office and sat in the same chair he always sat in. Instead of discussing what needed to get done that day, he handed her a letter and said, “Read it over and if you have any questions, let me know.”
Catlin read the letter. She was laid off. The first thought that sparked in her head was, “What am I going to do now?” She and her husband had recently purchased a house so their mortgage was the most concerning factor after losing her secure job: “My husband had his own business and so I was the one with the steady job, with the salary,” she said. “So now it’s like ok we have to make more money to pay the bills.”
Catlin searched for a comparable job for a long time and after a few unsuccessful interviews, she couldn’t find employment with a similar salary to her old job. Her only other option was to join the gig economy as an independent contractor.
These freelancers, independent contractors and on-demand workers will make up 45 per cent of the Canadian workforce by 2020, according to the Intuit Canada survey. But this statistic is concerning for some seasoned contract workers who understand the instability of the gig economy like Patrice Palmer who has been a contract teacher for 22 years.
Palmer, 59, has been working her contract position at Mohawk College for nine years. She said the majority of her coworkers are millennials and she can see how the stress of not knowing if they have regular employment and the difficulties in finding work, wears them down. For some, unstable contract work causes them to delay having a child and for others, it is even difficult to afford paying for a car, house or food.
“It’s just this kind of ongoing stress that never seems to go away and I don’t think that young people should live with that kind of stress,” she said.
Palmer also said she’s concerned for the futures of millennials who are forgoing traditional work for gig-type jobs. For example, a pension is something most young professionals don’t worry about, “But before you know it, your work life is over and I know a lot of people who would like to retire but can’t because they spent many years in contract employment and there’s not a pension for them,” she said.
For some millennials like Michael Zaccaria, however, he does not want to work a traditional job just for financial security if he hates it: “I don’t see myself as living my life working towards a pension and retirement. I want to live now. I don’t think I’ll ever stop working if I do what I’m passionate about for the rest of my life,” he said.