Is the GIG Economy Up?

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Home > Articles > Is the GIG Economy Up?

 Is the GIG Economy Up?

by Alf Carlesäter | Today's Manager
June 1, 2021
What bravery may be required to take the plunge from corporate employee to freelancer?


It was a dark and stormy night…

2020 certainly did not begin like that for me and did not end like it either. But between 1 January and 31 December​, there were moments, chunks actually, of needing to take a deep breath and reassess my reality.

COVID-19 hit us squarely between the eyes. Thankfully, I was able to take the kids skiing in Japan before doing so became irresponsible. The flight from Taiwan to Japan was packed, but the Singapore-Taiwan leg of our journey was possibly only 15 per cent occupied (a bad omen), so all four of us had our own three-seater row on the plane. That was back in February 2020 before the virus embraced the world in its infectious hug.

News of a brewing epidemic had us all stand at attention, scanning the media more fervently than before to keep up-to-date with the latest strategies to keep ourselves safe. Opinions differed: Mask, no mask. Test, don’t test, contact trace, or not.

In a parallel development, work-life balance as we knew it was getting impacted. Work from home became standard. Amazon, Netflix, and Zoom became staple services and boomed, while many other businesses suffered.

alk of layoffs and redundancies filled the corporate news ether. Recession, missed financial targets, and cost-cutting measures followed in the footsteps of the COVID-19 outbreak turning into a full-blown pandemic.

I was not spared. After 13 years with GE, I got a tap on the shoulder. All very civil. No drama. Just a new reality. I received the heads up in June 2020 and turned my badge in on 11/11 at 11:11 am

The first time I was given a “tap” was in Sweden when I worked at Citibank in the back-office to FX dealers after finishing high school and national service. The entire department was moved to Denmark, and 40 per cent of the staff were laid off. Three weeks of work rendered me four months’ pay, and I got to keep my meal vouchers (Rikskuponger), so I could overeat on pizza even after I left the bank.

That extra cash, paired with a decent sales commission earned from subsequently taking a gig at the prestigious (well, back then at least) department store “Nordiska Kompaniet” selling toys at Christmas time, made me enough to go travelling. To Asia.

That’s perhaps where my non-linear career story had its origin. Not to mention the influence from my Hungarian born medical doctor mother, who fled the communist regime in 1957 for some peace and love in Sweden. My likewise globetrotting government administrator Swedish father volunteered in the ambulance service under the Swedish Red Cross flag during the “Winter War” between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939. He later joined the Swedish field hospital in Pusan during the Korean war 1950-53.

Fuelled with wanderlust, some of it arguably via DNA, I set a target to get a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies, Korean, and International marketing. Midway through the programme, I did a language exchange in South Korea. Turned out to be a good choice.

Upon graduation, equipped with access to a corporate office, I announced my intention to travel to China. As one did back then, I faxed my resume and travel itinerary to numerous Swedish companies in Beijing and Shanghai to start my job hunt.

Perhaps not surprisingly, being the global nomad that I am, I ended up with a job in the mobility industry, working for Crown Relocations. One day I was having lunch with my mates in Shanghai, and the next, I was on a plane to Australia for the first part of my onboarding. The second phase took me to London before running an office start-up in Korea. The rest is history.

The second time I was “tapped”, it was an absolute cold shower and a wake-up call. I had left Korea, moved through Singapore, and was working in Hong Kong. It forced me to determine what I wanted to do. I went for an in-house HR role as a Talent Mobility consultant.

There is opportunity in adversity.

As a consultant with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, I loved every minute of my time there. The people were great, the work was fantastic, and the pay even better. I was on a roll.

Then General Electric popped up on the radar.

  • Great company;
  • Regional responsibility;
  • Permanent role; and
  • Back “home” in Singapore.

My journey of 13 years commenced and took me right across the world regularly. APAC, of course, but also Sub-Saharan Africa, which I came to manage, interspersed with regular trips to US HQ, and the occasional excursion to Europe. The businesses were diverse. My team of co-workers, colleagues, and stakeholders down to earth, approachable, and professional. I grew in so many ways by the opportunities that GE presented to me.

hen, a sudden 8am MS Team call. Two-on-one with management and HR. A conference call not fitting the norm: “We have identified your role to become redundant, and your employment is at risk.”

I have never been one to dwell on what I could have and should have done. A situation arises, and we choose what action to take: yes or no.

In short order, I did the following:

  • Network like a man possessed;
  • Register a business;
  • Get my CV in shape;
  • Train for a half marathon, get me in shape;
  • Pursue meaningful conversations with people I find interesting;
  • Write a business plan;
  • Not take me too seriously;
  • Look at investment opportunities and actually invest;
  • Scrap the first business plan and write a new one…repeat;
  • Seek out speaking engagements;
  • Outline topics to blog about;
  • Get off Netflix; and
  • ​Drink loads of coffee and electrolytes.

1/11/2020 at 11:11–New beginnings. When “your employment is at risk” became a reality, I celebrated with a final cup of GE sponsored Nespresso before turning in my badge and took my team out for a buffet lunch at The Orchard Country Club.

Something is intriguing about the proverbial “blank sheet of paper” that we are privileged to have set in front of us occasionally by some serendipitous power.

It gives you the freedom to fill it with what you want, only limited by your imagination, drive, and determination. Redefine what is possible. We owe that to ourselves. It is an attitude.

The new year, 2021, began, and I secured my first clients under my firm
GROW HR Consulting. It is a humble set-up aspiring to help organisations navigate International HR Operations, Talent Mobility, and Relocation challenges globally.

I also commenced an entrepreneurial venture with
Antler, a global early-stage VC firm, investing in the world’s most exceptions people and the defining companies of tomorrow. I joined the Singapore “SG7” cohort of 60 co-founders selected from a pool of 1500 candidates, and it became a great learning experience.

How does one move from being a corporate cog in the machinery to become a driving force and self-sufficient engine in the gig market? For that added discomfort and sense of instability, perhaps even an entrepreneur, just to satisfy one’s masochism.

Based on a report published by Kapronasia, the current trends indicate that “the digital gig economy generated ~USD 204 billion in revenue in 2018 or just over half (56 per cent) of Malaysia’s economy in 2019. The size of gig-economy transactions is projected to grow by a 17 per cent compound annual growth rate with a Gross Volume of ~USD 455 billion by 2023, or just over four-fifths (86 per cent) of Thailand’s GDP in 2019.” You can download the report published in September 2020

What bravery and preparedness are needed to unlock the inner courage to take a deliberate plunge to go freelance?

Well, for one, you need to have a willingness to embrace the unknown because there will be a lot of it. Gig type work will undoubtedly offer equal measures of flexibility and uncertainty, excitement, and despair. You are your own boss, but will it be financially sustainable?

nce you have built up sufficient courage and identified a good enough idea and market opportunity, spend an obsessive amount of time identifying the problem you are hoping to solve. That is my sincere advice to wannabe gig actors and entrepreneurs.

Too often, what we perceive as a problem is nothing that the market cares about. Do not fall into the trap of providing a solution to a problem that does not exist outside your head.

With corporate cost control measures arguably far from over, we should expect shifts in how workforce talent will and want to be engaged in the aftermath of COVID-19. The gig market is one such sourcing route where talent and opportunity can meet on new, perhaps more flexible, terms.

Life and our pursuit of happiness take us down paths we cannot plan. All we can do is be honest, active, and brave. The rest will fall in place, God willing.

Will I return to the corporate world? Perhaps.

In the meantime, I look forward to sharing, learning, and collaborating as the gig economy keeps on going up, up, up, presenting new opportunities in the symbiotic relationship between corporations, freelancers, and entrepreneurs.

Carpe Diem!


Alf Ca​rlesater is a globally experienced Talent Mobility leader, strategic business partner, and senior-level consultant turned entrepreneur. He applies intellectual curiosity and management acumen, combined with diploma​cy and emotional intelligence, to achieve assertive business impact.


Copyright © 2021 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 2, 2021

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