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Mind your language

The gig economy and why steady jobs are more recent than you think

Gigs go back only to 1926; but jobs didn’t always mean what they do now

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

In the same song where the brilliant lyricist Ian Dury gave the world the couplet, ‘I could be a writer with a growing reputation/ I could be the ticket-man at Fulham Broadway station’, his narrator speaks of ‘first-night nerves every one-night stand’. Perhaps we are now more accustomed to one-night stand referring to a casual sexual liaison, but in the less metaphorical sense, dating from the 19th century and was later used by Bernard Shaw, it simply means a one-night musical engagement, or gig.

Gig is first recorded in 1926, in Melody Maker. By 1939 it had given rise to the modern-sounding gigster, someone who plays gigs. Now in our day, it has found a new outlet in the idea of the gig economy. The gig economy gives people one-off odd jobs. They become self-employed or freelance. One online employment exchange is called eLance. Looked at less positively, workers in the gig economy become casual labourers. Just as tradesmen take their stand in the Zócalo outside the cathedral in Mexico City, waiting for work, so thousands of odd-job people seek employment on websites such as TaskRabbit and minor artisans market their wares on Etsy.


There is some anxiety about having no steady job, once thought of as a job for life. But job itself has changed in meaning. It first popped up in the Elizabethan period, in the phrase job of work. Perhaps it derives from job meaning ‘cartload’, though that gets us little further. In any case, it did not mean permanent employment. Employment has long been expressed by the word work; in the Vespasian Psalter, a gloss added in the ninth century translates the Latin opus in Psalm 104 as werce — ‘Man goeth forth unto his work’, as the Authorised Version has it. But that might just be day-labour.

Jobs remained high or low. The stock-jobber (already known by that name in the 17th century) wore a silk hat and made the market until Big Bang in 1986 quite exploded him. Still with us are jobs for the boys, a feature of crony capitalism allied with quangocracy. Plenty of scope there for the gig economy.

 


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