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The Upside of the On-Demand Economy

Joining the movement can lead to extra income

Career Guide: On Demand Economy advantages

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The gig economy is becoming increasingly popular with 50+ part-time job seekers.

The word "job" implies reporting to a workplace for 40 hours per week. "Gig," on the other hand, suggests fluidity. Work on only projects you want to, not those you don't. That's the promise of the rapidly growing on-demand economy. It features marketplaces such as Lyft, which connects drivers with people looking for a ride; Work Market, which helps businesses hire freelance workers; and Etsy, which lets artists sell their handmade creations.

"You can be anything from a doctor or lawyer to Task Rabbit or Uber or anything in between," says Steve King of Emergent Research, which studies the companies and workers in this employment space.

Because much of the on-demand economy centers on apps, many people assume it is dominated by millennials, but in reality older adults are well represented when it comes to both buying and selling. Indeed, more experienced workers are in some ways better equipped to take advantage of on-demand-economy options. "You have to be able to plug into a job and be productive right out of the gate," says Jeff Wald of Work Market. That's especially true for the higher-paid professional positions. "It does not lend itself well to somebody just out of school with no practical experience."

First, to clear up a misconception: Most on-demand workers have multiple sources of income, including avenues outside of these on-demand platforms. Data from a joint 2016 Intuit and Emergent Research survey show that while the average on-demand-economy worker puts in a total of 40 hours a week, that time is divided between on-demand projects and other employment, such as a traditional or part-time job, contracting and consulting, or running a business.

The prospect of earning additional income is part of the appeal of the on-demand economy. According to the Emergent-Intuit report, 63 percent of on-demand economy workers participated primarily for the opportunity to earn supplemental income.

Wayne Rasku, 68, counts himself in that category. "I was hoping I would be retired by now, but it didn't work out," he says. To supplement his income as a teacher at a Christian school in Georgia, he began repainting and selling wooden decorative items he found in thrift stores.

When a fellow teacher mentioned that her child had made money on Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, Rasku decided, "If a fifth grader can do this, maybe I can."

He made his first sale through his store, Beach Wall Decor, quickly. "When I started, I had no clue that I could do as well as I'm doing right now," he says. He grossed $12,000 last year and is on track to boost that by 50 to 100 percent this year, a level that he hopes will help him cut back from his full-time job soon.

Almost half of the respondents in the Emergent-Intuit report said that controlling their schedule was a key factor in their decision to join the on-demand economy. Most platforms let you pop in and pop out as needed. "A lot of people are locked out of traditional job markets," says King, particularly caregivers who are focused on looking after ailing family members. That's why the ability to work for a couple of hours here and there is so appealing.

That's what Rob Saunders does. He began driving for ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft in California after being forced into retirement in 2011, when he was in his mid-50s. He loves the social aspect: "I just enjoy talking with people," he says. And as a parent of school-age children, he appreciates the flexibility.

One day last year, his daughter, a sixth grader, got sick at school. "I turned off the app and was able to go get my daughter," he says — something that would have involved asking permission and negotiating coverage in the corporate world. He thought, This is really cool that I can be able to dictate and dedicate the time when I need to and put my family first.

Diane Faulkner, 51, who offers writing, editing and proofreading services, signed up with Thumbtack, a site where freelancers can accept bids for various types of services. The former human resources executive gets at least one editing or proofreading query a day, and while some of these potential clients decide they need cheaper options, there are enough "gems" in the mix to make the effort worth her time.

Likewise, she has gotten regular content marketing gigs through Skyword, a content marketing platform through which businesses can hire freelancers to write ads for them. Professional on-demand-economy platforms can be "an excellent source of extra cash for those of us who are 50-plus with loads of experience," she says.

If you're thinking of giving these platforms a try, take time to peruse lists of required skills to see where you fit best. Specialized expertise tends to command higher pay. Ask people in your professional networks what they've tried and which platforms they've found most convenient.

To be sure, on-demand work is still work. "It's not easy money," says Garrick Chow, who teaches a course on the online education platform Lynda about working in the on-demand economy. "You are doing a job. The only way to make money is to be on the clock." Likewise, while information-based jobs can be done anywhere, in-person services require the right location. Another drawback is that gigs don't come with the benefits, such as health insurance and paid vacations, that full-time jobs often do.

But most on-demand workers enjoy the options. Emergent and Intuit found that 70 percent of on-demand-economy workers were satisfied with their current situations.

This sense of control is key, says Lisa Hufford, CEO of Simplicity Consulting, a talent solutions company, and author of the forthcoming book Navigating the Talent Shift. Many experienced workers "love to be able to contribute, but they don't want to go back in the grind. They want to choose the people they are excited about working with."

Increasingly, "There's no one right way to work," she says. For many people, gig work is becoming part of the job experience.

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