Posted by: patenttranslator | March 4, 2018

Making Sense of the Gig Economy So That It Works for Us

There are many good reasons why so-called gig economy has a bad reputation.

Unlike in the old system in which employees were treated as valuable members of the company – that is why they are called “Mitarbeiter” in German, which literary means “coworkers”, and “社員” [sha-in] in Japanese, which literally means “company members” – the gig workers in the new gig economy are hired only for gig jobs of indefinite duration, usually of very short duration, only to be discarded like used coffee filters once the job is done.

The check is (maybe) in the mail …. you have a nice life now!

While we were not looking or noticing much, the gig economy has been slowly replacing the traditional employer-employee economy model for several decades. In the traditional employer-employee model, loyal employees were rewarded with an employment contract including a slew of different perks, generous to different degrees depending on the company and the country, such as vacation time, health insurance, life insurance, and up until recently not only regular increases in salary for  loyal employees who stayed with the same employer for many years, but also a defined, company-funded pension for employees who stayed with the same employer until it was time to retire.

I myself have been an employee for approximately 7 years between 1980 and 1987 in several countries. In all of the countries where I worked as an employee, the fact that I had all of the benefits of being an employee was very important to me.

But the most important benefit of being an employee was the stability and security that came with “having a job.”

The Stability that Used to Come with Being an Employee Is Mostly a Thing of the Past

I knew, or thought I knew, that once I found a good job, or at least a job that is for the most part enjoyable and that pays enough to cover all of my bills, I would not have any major existential worries. And because I was young, single and willing to work for a relatively low salary, I was always able to find a job within a few weeks.

But although the gig economy was just getting started more than 30 years ago, it suddenly caught up with me when I got fired from my last job as an employee in San Francisco after only 3 months, basically as a result of internal company politics over which I had no control.

What nobody told me when I signed my employment contract back in 1987 was that the woman who hired me and then fired me at the end of the probation period mostly needed somebody like me because her company was sending her for training to Europe for several weeks, during which period she absolutely had to have a replacement. That was the main reason why I was hired.

I would not have put it this way more than 30 years ago, but I while back then I was looking for a gig of a relatively long duration, the company that hired me was looking for a gig employee for a very short time period.

So that was how I eventually became a self-employed gig worker determined never to get fired again more than 30 years ago, long before the term ‘gig economy’ came into existence.

Does It Still Make Sense to Try to Be a ‘Loyal Employee?’

Most people would probable agree that the economy has changed quite a bit in the last three decades, and most of these changes eroded or simply got rid of the benefits that used to come more or less automatically with the status of a ‘valued employee’, so much so that even the term ‘a valued employee’ may be at this point not much more that an anachronism.

While defined pensions for loyal employees still exist for employees in the public sphere, they are mostly non-existent in the private sphere because once the money that was in private pensions started being traded on the stock exchange, the money was gambled away, or to put it in even more precise terms, stolen by the unreachable criminals on Wall Street, with the full knowledge and approval of corporations who are now only too happy to get rid of their former employees just before they reach their retirement age. If the former employees can no longer work – why should the corporations give a damn about them?

The relationship between employer and employee has changed dramatically compared to the situation three or four decades ago when I felt that I was a ‘valued employee’.

It changed so much that it may make more sense for young people to forget about the traditional concept of job security and a relative financial safety that used to be understood under the term an ’employee’.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that an ’employee’ who does not have a defined pension to be paid by the employer, who only has a skimpy health insurance package with co-payments and deductibles as is the case for most employees now here in the US, or no insurance at all, and maybe a few vacation days, is often in a worse situation than an independent contractor these days.

Employees too are now for the most part thought of by their employees in the  gig economy basically as gig workers who will work for the company for a somewhat longer gig during an undetermined period of time, rather than as valuable ‘co-workers’ or ‘company members’ who should be naturally rewarded for their loyalty with higher salaries based on their seniority with all kinds of benefits, which are now available only to the top honchos who run the company and who make sure that senior employees in the lower ranks are fired as soon as possible and replaced by younger and cheaper workers.

In contrast to that, being a gig worker does have some advantages in the 21st century for independent contractors, but only for those of us who are able to find the best gig jobs that are out there if we know where to look for them.

The Bottom and the Top of the Gig Economy

One good thing about the gig economy, at least from my point of view, is that it is truly big and there are many opportunities in it for translators.

Many of these opportunities are relatively short or very short translations, most of which are offered by a translation agency in the role of an intermediary. But this is only one part of the many gigs available in the gig economy.

Some translators got used to the idea that working for intermediaries is basically all there is, and they have learned to to find ways to make ends meet by only working for translation agencies.

The problem is, the pickings in the “translation industry” are getting slimmer by the month if not by the day, as one can see from numerous complaints on social media about translation agencies who offer ridiculously low rates and sometime simply don’t pay at all based on some BS excuse.

One possible solution to this problem, and in my opinion the best one, is to get your gigs from the top rather than from the bottom of the gig economy, or to provide highly specialized translations to direct clients without having to share the compensation from the direct clients with the intermediaries.

I know how to find my own direct clients in my field and in my line of work, which is translation of patents from several languages.

But although I have been able to find my beloved direct gigs for many years, the translation universe is so vast and complex that I would not know how to do that in your field and in your line of work.

Beginning and relatively new translators can probably learn a few useful things by going to conferences of translators and listening to prophets du jour who have figured it all out for them and who claim to have a perfect recipe for becoming successful and affluent in the translation business.

But since nobody really knows you and your specialty, (hopefully, you have a good one), or your specific situation, nobody has a turnkey solution that can be used by any translator, regardless of his or her location, language direction, subject and specialty, and personal strength and weaknesses.

My last new job from the top of the gig economy lasted for about 14 or 15 months. During that gig of intermediate duration, I translated about a hundred patents, I paid off all of my debts during about the first three months of that particular gig, and I was able to put some money in the bank.

I had to work really hard because at the same time I had to make sure that I don’t lose my old clients, some of whom who were also sending me work on occasion. Every week – every damn week! – I had to work also on Saturdays and Sundays for about a year.

It looks like that particular gig is now over because I have not heard from this particular client in about a month. But I am actually relieved because I don’t want to work so hard all the time.

Last month I had plenty of work from other clients, this month has been quiet so far, but who knows what the unpredictable gig economy will bring next? Living in the gig economy is like hunting in an endless, primeval forest: some hunters mostly just find berries and maybe they will occasionally kill a jackrabbit to have some meat too.

And some hunters mostly just hunt for big moose because the payoff is much better and the food is tastier and lasts much longer. I’d like to think of myself as a crafty moose hunter rather than a hungry berry picker.

I suppose one could say that just like Winston at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 learned to love Big Brother, at the end of my professional career, I have finally learned to love Gig Economy.

It’s not such a bad economy after all, especially considering that the old, paternalistic employer-employee model has been for the most part done away with at the present stage of corporate capitalism.


  1. Dear Steve, You wrote: “get your gigs from the top rather than from the bottom of the gig economy”: what kind of intermediary is, in your opinio, “the top” of the gig economy?

    I fear there is no “top” any more: they all claim they can extort “fuzzy match rebates”, after SDL’s pervert psychopaths have rotten their brains with false promises.

    The TIME we spend on translations is not paid for any more.

    The “translation” market has become the realm of incompetent and dishonest middlemen, using incompetent and dishonest amateur bilinguals.

    Customers only have little time to approve of the “output”. After which they are forced to pay…

    If I were a person responsible for translations in a commercial company nowadays, would I DARE telling my bosses and their shareholders that CAT tools are bullshit, that they slow down translators’ work and that, no, the promise of “huge savings” that they were lured with are only pies in the sky?…

    The psychopaths that pollute the translation market, thanks to the Internet, have managed to enter customers’ brains and to tell them what to think:

    nowadays, with those marvellous “tools”, translators can translate “faster, better AND for… CHEAPER”!

    As to machine translation, boys, they are still rolling on the floor from laughing: that’s the latest gimmick to extort 99% of a freelance translator’s remuneration!

    As long as the customer pays…

    So the ball is in the end-customers’ camp, really.

    Either they LEARN HOW TO FIND THEIR OWN TRANSLATORS THEMSELVES – and nowadays it should not be difficult – or they will find themselves with no translators.

    If they like the “belles infidèles” or the clumsy “translations” – or even the mistranslations – that amateurs provide “quickly and inexpensively”, fine, but that’s not translation…

    That’s garbage, detritus, junk – not even having the value of recycling paper nowadays…

    AND that stuff keeps polluting websites with aligned translations, which used to be a great way of finding solutions to translation issues…

    I have written to the people responsible at Glosbe.dom that their recent addition of all sorts of subtitling “translations” was a DISASTER – mainly because the assholes running subtitling businesses don’t understand a thing about translation, they hire cheap bilingual amateurs who translate very quickly to compensate for the peanuts they are thrown at and thus translate LITERALLY without checking expressions and “belles infidèles”… A DISASTER…

    This is how “in specie” in English becomes “en espèces” in French, instead of “en nature” (the exact OPPOSITE!), for example.

    You have to remember some of those “translation” pearls and serve them to end-customers as often as you can, so that they UNDERSTAND the difference between competent and incompetent translators, and between meticulous and negligent translators: a WORLD of difference!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting. And yes, it always makes sense to be a loyal employee. And love the Chet Baker! More, please. Good luck.


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