How To Survive In The ‘Gig Economy’

Diane Mulcahy has spent much of her career as an independent contractor, working as a writer and speaker, an adjunct professor at universities, and advising and consulting with Fortune 500 companies. About five years ago, she read an article that described the type of work that she and others did as part of the “gig economy” movement.

“I had one of those moments where I got goosebumps on my arms,” says Mulcahy, who was then working as an adjunct at Babson College teaching a core curriculum MBA course. “I’d been thinking about different ways of working for a long time, and now I realized there was a name for it.”

A few months later Mulcahy put together a syllabus for an experimental MBA class called Entrepreneurship and the Gig Economy, and Babson administrators embraced the idea. The first time she taught the course, about a dozen students signed up, enough for her to run it. Today, it is a popular elective at Babson, and the class, which has a cap of 42 students, is routinely oversubscribed, Mulcahy tells Poets&Quants for Undergrads.

“I think Babson was unbelievably open minded and way ahead of the curve in recognizing that this is an important trend and that schools need to offer something that prepares students explicitly to succeed in the gig economy,” she says.


Babson’s Diane Mulcahy

The term “gig economy” has become a popular buzzword in the last few years as more and more people are working independently or as freelancers in place of more traditional full-time jobs, or to supplement them. But business schools, by and large, have been slow to catch up with this trend in the workplace, said administrators from the small handful of schools that offer programs that support students looking for untraditional careers. According to a report from McKinsey’s Global Institute, up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States — or about 20% to 30% of the working age population — do some form of independent work. That share of the workforce continues to grow, and more and more companies are outsourcing jobs that used to fall under the domain of full-time time employees and instead are now being given to consultants and freelancers.

Academia has been slow to catch up with this trend, experts say. Most business programs, both undergraduate and graduate, are organized with the intent of getting students full-time jobs after they graduate. Most human resources and career classes at business schools continue to be taught from the perspective of a full-time employment model, says Len Schlesinger, former president of Babson College who was a strong supporter and champion of Mulcahy’s class back when she first started to teach it in 2011. He says he’s not aware of another business school that offers a class similar to the one Mulcahy teaches at Babson.

“I think that students continue to be largely left on their own to consider their career options beyond traditional full-time employment,” says Schlesinger, now a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Most career offices are way behind today’s job market realities and see gig economy work as lower status.’”


At Babson, home to many aspiring entrepreneurs, Mulcahy’s class has found a welcoming home. She uses her book The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing The Life You Want as the class textbook. Published in 2016, the book grew out of her experience teaching the class over the last few years. Initially, Mulcahy says, she envisioned the class as one that would help students learn about trends in the economy, study emerging businesses that serve people who work in the gig economy and examine the impact of the independent workforce on traditional businesses.

That part of the syllabus remains relevant, but in the last few years the class has become much more personal, she says. Mulcahy now spends much of the class questioning students’ typical ideas of job security and stability, talking with them about what the gig economy means for their careers and planning how they can best set themselves up for a thriving career as a freelancer. Students learn strategies around branding, networking and identity as well as how to structure and manage their time so they can take advantage of time between gigs, she says.

“Now the students who take the class are there because they know there is no job security and independent workers are becoming more prevalent,” Mulcahy says. “It’s not realistic for them to plan on working full-time for the entirety of their careers, so they are trying to figure out how to prepare themselves, how to succeed and have the tools to be able to navigate it successfully.”

Sarah Case, who graduated from Babson’s evening MBA program last May, took Mulcahy’s class last year. In her current job as associate director of education programs and workforce development at the New England Venture Capital Association, she works with many independent consultants on a day-to-day basis. She says the class helped her get a better understanding of their career paths and how they structure their time during and between projects. To her surprise, Case says, by the end of Mulcahy’s class she started thinking about ways in which she herself could eventually use her skills to eventually do more independent contract work.

“It was one of the most introspective classes that I took at Babson in the sense that it provided me with an opportunity and framework to think about what are my strengths and passions and how I could use them to leverage the gig economy,” Case says. “It is so helpful to know I have those skills in my back pocket, so if I wanted to travel the world and have more flexibility or create a different schedule or working life balance, I could do that.”

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