squarespace five to nine hustle gig economy
A still from the Squarespace '5 to 9' freelancing ad (Image: Squarespace)

This article discusses suicide.

A new ad glorifying “hustle” culture debuted during yesterday’s Super Bowl, featuring a spin on Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five”: “Working five to nine, you’ve got passion and a vision. ‘Cause it’s hustlin’ time, whole new way to make a livin’.”

In the ad, an office worker clocks off, swaps her grey office wear for bright leggings and dances around, thrilled she can now spend her afternoon off work… working. But this time for her “side hustle” as a dance teacher.

It’s supposed to show the freedom of freelancing a passion project — but instead glorifies the gig-economy, where millions work too much for too little.

In Australia the number of people in casual and insecure work has increased following the pandemic. Suicide rates, linked to insecure work, are likely to increase, and the government’s proposed economic response bill will only make things worse.

The casual economy

Jobs are returning to Australia, with unemployment sitting at 6.6% — but the quality of those jobs is much, much worse, according to Australia Institute Centre for Future Work senior economist Alison Pennington.

“Sixty per cent of the jobs created between May and November 2020 have been casual positions,” she said. “That’s over 400,000 positions.”

In December, the number of people working multiple jobs increased by 17.5%. A lot of those secondary jobs were people freelancing, often for ride-sharing or food delivery companies.

“Of all the statistics that’s the most worrying. We’ve seen a growth in insecure self-employment, most likely gig work,” Pennington said.

The fact that that spike occurred while Victoria was still in lockdown showed “a significant degree of desperation”, she said.

In contrast to Parton’s catchy revamped tune, Pennington said, side hustles aren’t a sign of a healthy economy.

“What’s happening alongside working multiple jobs is [zero] increase in wages,” she said. “People are working more for the same or less salary, and this has been a pre-pandemic trend.”

Australians also work a huge amount of unpaid overtime — an average of 5.25 hours a week. Across a year that’s seven standard working weeks each, which costs $100 billion in lost income for the country.

In November 2020, Australians were working more hours than they had been in February of the same year, despite a higher rate of unemployment.

The mental health toll

Being either overworked or underworked can have real consequences, as highlighted by recent data from Japan.

Suicide rates in Japan dropped by 14% during the first half of 2020, thanks largely to government subsidies easing financial burdens reducing work pressure. But from July to October, those rates increased by 16% following the toll of increased domestic labour, domestic violence, a rise in unemployment and school closures.

Brain and Mind Centre co-director Professor Ian Hickie told Crikey that modelling showed there was a link between job security, social dislocation and suicide.

“Secure jobs link people to communities, and give people optimism about their futures,” he said.

In Australia suicide rates have remained at pre-pandemic levels. While modelling showed there would be an increase in rates at the end of 2020, these rate predictions were revised down as JobKeeper and JobSeeker were extended and unemployment was lower than expected.

The Brain and Mind Centre’s modelling predicts suicide deaths will rise by 30.3% between 2020 and 2025 in people aged 15 to 24.

A large driver of this, Hickie said, was young people stuck in low-skilled, insecure jobs who are not developing their careers or work skills.

“It messes with career and fundamental optimism, and they’ll face the most difficulties,” he said.

Suicide is the leading cause of lost productive years in Australia, with 115,000 potential years of lives lost annually. The median age for suicide is 44 and Hickie believes that number will trend downward with more people under 30 affected.

Policy changes needed

Hickie said the government needed to address young people directly, as the way people feel about unemployment — rather than just the figures themselves — predict psychological distress.

“They’re asking, will society support me, do I have reasonable prospects, are we all in it together,” Hickie said. He believes the economic recovery has focused too much on older businessmen and construction workers and has ignored huge demographics.

“It’s as if [the government thinks] rushing back to poorly paid, unskilled jobs is what we should be doing,” he said.

The Coalition’s proposed COVID-19 Omnibus Bill will only make things worse, Pennington said.

Designed to help businesses recover from COVID-19, the bill defines casual work and is supposed to let casual workers “convert” to permanent workers after 12 months.

In reality, Pennington said, the bill will leave employees worse off, allowing employers to change workers’ schedules to avoid them becoming permanent, avoid overtime loadings for permanent part-time workers, and give employers more power to fix wages.

“There are real dangers and risks about this race to the bottom, and it undermines the conditions of an economy that works for everyone,” she said.

Anyone seeking help can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.