For some in Seattle, the so-called gig economy has become a desirable, necessary and in either case permanent condition.
JEREMIAH ZUEGER LOOKS like he’s having way too much fun on the job as he spins and flips a sign advertising a new apartment complex at a busy corner by Seattle’s International District.
The 17-year-old has been working for Aarrow Sign Spinners for about a year, commuting by ferry from his home in Bremerton to perform his sign acrobatics as cars and buses rush by.
“People come up to me all the time,” Zueger says.
They want to know how he got so good at sign-waving. Some ask whether his company’s hiring.
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Zueger’s job might look like fun and games, but in the back of his mind, he’s thinking about how important it is to prove himself to his employer, his family. Behind the smile he flashes to anyone who might catch his eye, he’s thinking about how he can better himself in life.
“The main thing I tell myself all the time is, ‘Keep going,’ ” Zueger says.
And therein lies the core message for anyone who hustles to make a living: No matter what, make it work.
“Hustling” has long since outgrown the gritty stereotype of the street-corner entrepreneur selling items out of a car trunk or doing odd jobs to put food on the table — or the starving artist, musician or actor busing tables and slinging hash by day to pay rent.
Today, the so-called gig economy has become a desirable, necessary and in either case permanent condition for millions of American workers.
In fact, recent surveys by the Federal Reserve Bank indicate that many people who do gigs have annual household incomes above the national average of about $53,000.
The internet makes taking on multiple gigs easier than ever, whether you’re using Craigslist, eBay or any number of more specialized websites and apps that allow you to sell goods and services and essentially be your own boss.
From selling crafts on Etsy, assembling furniture for the dexterity-challenged on Handy, renting rooms on Airbnb and operating streetfood stands, to tutoring, housekeeping, baby-sitting, errand-running and tech troubleshooting, the possibilities are endless.
Seattle Business magazine recently explored the emergence of a new trend aimed at gig workers. Firms like Amazon “fractionate” certain jobs by dividing the various tasks among thousands of part-time, independent tech workers all over the world via web apps. A gig in this instance might last for only the few minutes or seconds it takes to perform the task online.
While it’s still hard to get a handle on the scope of the gig economy, because so many income sources — like fractionating, presumably — don’t fit into neat categories, a recent report by the Brookings Institution indicates this sector is growing rapidly.
“When it comes to Uber, Miss Daisy may be driving you,” goes a recent headline in U.S. News & World Report about increasing numbers of seniors earning extra cash to pad their retirement savings by driving for the app-based rideshare service.
ANNE GOLDBERG, 28, teaches barre dance classes, tutors for the Princeton Review test-preparation company, works as an adjunct professor at Cornish College of the Arts and gives figure-skating lessons, all to support a comfortable lifestyle that includes renting an apartment with her husband, Kevin Baldwin, in Seattle’s University District.
She color-codes her calendar to keep track of which jobs she’ll do on which days, and at what hour, while factoring in the seasonal nature of some of her jobs.
“It’s always a game of Tetris just trying to fit people in,” Goldberg jokes on a rare day when her work is done before dinnertime. In the morning, she might be teaching barre. In the evening, she might be at the ice rink.
Her husband is a university teaching assistant, musician and also a Princeton Review tutor, all of which he does while working toward a doctorate.
Goldberg says that while she enjoys the flexibility of free agency, the real reason she juggles so many gigs boils down to money.
“I would love to have one job, but I don’t have one that would financially support me in the way that I’d want,” Goldberg says.
Her goal is to use her own doctoral degree in music composition to secure a tenured position at a college, with job security, good pay and benefits.
Until then, “We’re making it work; we’re hustling,” Goldberg says.
ON ANY GIVEN day, you can spot Sam Hylas pedaling around South Lake Union and other downtown neighborhoods on a three-wheeled bike, carrying a huge cargo container for the Belltown-based, online delivery company Freewheel. Rain or shine, he’s out delivering coffee beans to cafes or freshly made pasta to restaurants or lunches to offices. After his part-time shift one day, he boasts that he knows all of the buildings in Amazon’s sprawling office complex by heart.
And when not doing that job, he delivers rental bikes to customers of the on-demand bicycle service Pedal Anywhere and does light bike maintenance at the company. Hylas, 23, also goes to class once a week to get certified in web design, but already, he moonlights from time to time as a web developer.
Hylas shares an apartment with his girlfriend in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, which helps keep living costs manageable.
“I wouldn’t be able to live on my own in this city,” he says. His parents in California help out when there’s a cash emergency.
Hylas says his hope is to use the web-developer training as leverage to secure more contracting jobs, but even now, his work in tech supplements his income.
“Lately, I’ve been making ends meet by myself,” Hylas says.
His ultimate goal is to be able to live anywhere while working remotely as a freelance web designer.
Hylas, Goldberg and Zueger might be typical gig economy workers — young, just starting out, no kids — but people old and young are doing the job hustle all around us, from sign-spinners to drivers, defying expectations about who’s looking for gigs and why.
HUSTLING ISN’T SO much a way of life defined by how many jobs you have or where you stand on the economic spectrum as an attitude toward work.
Mike Ager, a Seattle bar owner, firefighter and business consultant, knows what it’s like to juggle multiple jobs, and because of that, he understands the need to be resourceful and quick on your feet.
“Stuff can change instantly; how do you accommodate that?” he says. “I’ll learn whatever I need to learn; I’ll meet whoever I need to meet.”
We speak not long after he; his wife, Lindsay Cary; and their business partners celebrated the opening of their second drinking hole, a partially underground lounge in Pioneer Square called The Sovereign. Much of the Art Deco-inspired décor they did themselves. Their other hidden-in-plain-sight bar, The Forge Lounge, greets ferry foot passengers on an elevated sidewalk leading to Colman Dock, not far from the new place.
Each week, Ager, 39, works a grueling 48-hour shift as a firefighter in Maple Valley, a job he’s had since he was 23.
Fighting fires is essentially a problem-solving job: You have to be agile enough to figure out what to do regardless of the situation and logistical challenges. These skills create a good foundation for those who juggle multiple jobs, too.
“I’ve taken everything I’ve learned as a firefighter and applied it to the rest of my life,” Ager says.
It takes time to adjust as he leaps from one thing to another. He’s been putting in 100 to 120 hours a week among all three of his pursuits.
Ager says he’s comfortable financially, but it’s easy for a super-competitive person like him to slip into “grind mode,” a mindset that is all about work, work, work.
“In 2016, everybody feels like they’re overworked; everyone feels like they’re under the gun,” he says. “It’s easy to feel disappointed. It’s easy to become selfish and say, ‘I need for me.’
“We need to be mindful of the bigger picture.”
For Ager and his wife, the hustle of daily life serves a greater social purpose. They are starting a nonprofit that will foster entrepreneurship by teaching locals in developing countries how to write business plans, secure microloans and start their own small businesses. In Cambodia, for example, Ager and Cary have met many people who hustle every day just to survive and who are hungry for more.
“They just need a shot,” Ager says.
IN 2007, DENISE GARL had been working for the same company in different capacities for 25 years.
But as the Great Recession hit, Garl, who had recently turned 40, realized she wanted to make a career change.
She decided to give herself a shot at a new chapter in life.
Her life partner, Jay Leckrone, had been into hydro racing for years, and when Garl started volunteering on the team owned by the legendary Ken Muscatel, taking care of boat electronics, she got hooked.
Garl, now 51, quit her job and followed her newfound passion at her partner’s side on Muscatel’s crew.
She even went to driving school to get a commercial license, allowing her to operate the rigs that haul hydros around the country to competitions during the summertime racing season.
Traveling around America by truck proved to be an amazing, if not lucrative, adventure.
For a time, Garl helped pay the bills back home by working as a school-bus driver.
“I was driving school bus during the year so I could take the summers off to drive the speedboats around,” she says.
When Muscatel retired in 2011, Garl and her partner decided to go into the hydro business as team owners themselves. They finally purchased their first race boat in 2013. Today they co-own Centurion Unlimited Racing.
But after a while, it was no longer possible to rely solely on Leckrone’s blue-collar day job to support the household while she handled the business affairs of the hydro team. Garl was going to have to start earning income as well.
In 2015, Garl turned to Uber.
Working as an independent driver was expensive at first.
With no reliable car to use, she started out leasing one from Uber, but that set her back about $640 a month. Still, the gig allowed her to cover the cost of the car and her monthly share of housing expenses.
After six months as an Uber driver, she was able to purchase a car of her own.
Earning a living from a rideshare service is far from a conventional work life, but it’s one that suits Garl. She loves to drive, anyway, and she never has to ask for time off in the summer to focus on the hydro racing season. She sets her own schedule and goals.
But that also means all of the pressure to succeed at that job falls on her shoulders. There are no bosses or employees to share blame.
“People who have traditional jobs have a hard time understanding it,” Garl says. “There’s a different type of discipline required … You have to be really flexible, and you have to be smart about your fuel use.”
Garl says she works as a driver on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, for about six hours each day, and on Saturdays and Sundays for 10 to 12 hours a day.
“The money is on the weekends,” Garl says.
That’s when lots of people in South King Country want rides into Seattle to go shopping, hang out, attend events or catch a ferry.
“On the weekends, I can literally sit on my couch, be on my app and in five or 10 minutes be on my way,” she says.
There are some hassles, chief among them the often-terrible traffic on the Seattle area’s busy highways. She rolls with it.
“I never would have guessed it,” Garl says of her career path. “But I can’t imagine it any other way.”
Today the couple doesn’t have to put earned income into the hydro business, which now runs off money from sponsorships and appearance fees.
Garl says she, her partner and a 20-year-old artist daughter share a small rental house in Auburn’s downtown area, which is just fine by them.
“It’s modest, it’s cute and it’s all we need,” she says.
Garl says she believes she can maintain her current financial stability through the rideshare income. She’s not worried about what might come next.
“I learned a lot by being in that kind of anxious, desperate situation for a couple of years,” Garl says. “Even old dogs can learn new tricks … Just keep looking forward.”