With all this working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, is the gig economy what we are going have to look forward to? Certainly the internet has facilitated this form of labor — think no further than Uber. So maybe we will have to get yet more familiar with the word “gig”.

Anatoly Liberman speculates at his fascinating OUP blog post “Gig” and its kin on the origins of the word “gig”. He tells us “Over the centuries, English gig has been recorded with the following senses: ‘a flighty girl,’ ‘whipping top,’ ‘whim,’ ‘fun,’ ‘odd person,’ ‘fool,’ and ‘a one-horse carriage’. Those senses probably appeared independently of one another and have been referred by etymologists to the idea of light or quick movement. All gigs (as it were) are ‘flighty.'” He ends up being forced into accepting a somewhat indelicate origin for the word.

The sense of “gig” as a freelance job has moved into widespread currency these days, arriving by way of the music business. This sort of “flighty” employment status does appear to be ever more likely in our future. Of course we in book publishing have been using freelance labor for years — but there’s always further to go! Make all your staff freelance and have them work from home, possibly maintaining a single conference room in town for the occasional morale-boosting get-together — so much more satisfying than those eternal Zoom meetings — and bingo, lots of nasty costs go away. You may have to provide enhanced online services — but you’d need to have done that anyway; everyone’s got to constantly update their IT systems — but getting rid of your office building, not to mention the office manager, the cleaners, the coffee machine, and lots of insurance coverage will make this sort of change almost irresistible. Of course, if, like Random House say, you’ve recently paid for a huge building just down from Columbus Circle, you may be reluctant to abandon (or have some difficulty offloading) your white elephant, given that everyone else will be eager to downsize too. This might well affect your view of the situation.

One precondition for the widespread adoption of the gig economy ought to be some resolution of the healthcare situation in America. Being a gig worker in Britain is one thing, but it takes on a whole extra dimension of uncertainty in the USA in the absence of a National Health Service. I know we always fear the unknown, but really, basing healthcare on employers and insurance companies (not to mention privately owned hospitals) isn’t a great idea. It just increases the overall cost of medical care by adding their costs and profit margins to the total, and also leaves anyone who doesn’t have a regular 9-5 job without medical coverage. If there wasn’t such an operation in place already, would our current system be what any rational human being would come up with? But we can’t start from scratch, nor apparently are most of us able to see past today’s system in order to think about anything better. Democratic Presidents have wrestled: Clinton ran aground on it; Obama got through a sort of halfway plan; surely Biden won’t try to do healthcare, unless as part of a triumphant second term lap of honor. Still, maybe if everyone ends up with a freelance job, the demand from the people will convince reluctant legislators.