A way to pick up a few bucks

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Carol Sorgen

After retiring, Barry Belle started driving for Uber whenever he wanted to earn some funds. Such flexible jobs, where workers are paid for the tasks they perform and can choose to work as little or as much as they want, are known as part of the “gig” economy. Other gig jobs include hosting guests in your own home through Airbnb, and choosing from a variety of one-time chores to do for others through TaskRabbit.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Barry Belle spent 30 years as a project manager for the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. But when the 75-year-old Pikesville resident retired in 2014, he still wanted to work — just not as much.

“I just wanted to get out of the house two or three days a week,” said Belle, who’s now a driver for the ride-booking services Uber and Lyft, in addition to having private clients.

Belle works several days a week, from 8 a.m. to no later than 3 p.m., driving customers to destinations as close as the Owings Mills Metro Station and as far as Waynesboro, Pa. and the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“This is a good way to meet people and earn some extra money,” said Belle. “You can start when you want, quit when you want, and go on vacation when you want.”

Payment by the job

Belle is among the growing numbers of workers — including baby boomers and seniors — who are members of what is being called the “gig economy.” The term (the latest economic buzzword) describes the trend of “task-based employment.”

Rather than working a standard 40-hour week with specific responsibilities — and receiving regular salaries, raises and benefits in return — workers are paid for the particular tasks (or “gigs”) they do. According to a recent study by McKenzie Global Institute, nearly three out of 10 American workers earns at least some of their income through independent and gig employment.

The gig economy is of particular benefit to those considering retirement or those, like Belle, who have already retired, according to Chuck Underwood. Underwood is a pioneer in the field of generational study, which examines differences among the generations. He is the author of America’s Generations in the Workplace, Marketplace, and Living Room.

“Boomers love to work,” said Underwood. “They always have and always will define themselves by their contribution to something larger than themselves.

“We are also in a golden era of anti-aging science, medicine and nutrition,” Underwood continued. “Life expectancy, according to scientists, is about to dramatically increase. So, boomers have become the first generation to have no good guess as to how long they might live if they simply take care of themselves.

“If we don’t know how long we’ll live, we don’t know how much money we’ll need to retire. Therefore we can’t afford to retire.”

Flexibility and other differences

Flexibility is one of the biggest draws of gig work, said Michael Black, general manager of Uber Baltimore, who oversees the 10,000 active Uber drivers here. “Instead of fitting your life around work, you can fit your work around your life.”

There are a number of other differences between providing services in the gig economy and just hanging out your own shingle as a solo entrepreneur.

For starters, businesses such as Uber vet their providers (not just anyone can become an Uber driver, for example, and not just any car will do, either). And you must follow their rules to keep getting gigs.

On the other hand, you don’t need to do your own marketing, as you would have a ready-made client base seeking your services. The problem here is that as more and more people enter the gig economy, existing workers face increasing competition from newcomers.

Billing and collecting is also taken care of by such companies.  Instead of your having to invoice a customer directly, buyers of the service you provide typically pay online or through their smartphone, and you’ll receive your payment (minus the cut taken by the company) in the same manner.

Gig workers still need to keep track of their costs. For example, while Uber provides supplemental liability insurance while you are on a gig, drivers still need to pay for their own gas, basic auto insurance and repairs.

Another unique feature of working for such companies is that both providers and customers typically can rate each other on a scale of one to five stars, either on websites or apps. As these ratings are made public, this feature tends to make both you and your customers try extra hard to be nice to each other.

Other gig options abound

Driving is just one of the many jobs that have caught on in the gig economy. A few others: Rover, which matches dog owners with dog walkers; TaskRabbit, which pairs homeowners with nearby handymen (or women) who can handle house repairs; Wyzant, which helps people find nearby tutors, and perhaps the granddaddy of them all: Airbnb, which lets you start a short-term rental business to earn money from a spare bedroom or two. (It is estimated that Airbnb has more than 650,000 hosts worldwide.)

Jeannette Belliveau, 63, has been an Airbnb host since 2013, renting out extra bedrooms in her Fells Point townhome. For Belliveau, whose career in journalism for such newspapers as the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post ended in three separate buyouts, the idea of welcoming temporary visitors to her home was more appealing than continuing to have the long-term renters she once had. “It was getting harder to find compatible housemates,” she said.

Belliveau, who has traveled the world, enjoys sharing memories with the globe-trotting visitors who book her $40/night rooms.

“It was tailor-made for me,” she said, adding that she particularly likes the younger travelers who stay with her. “With their energy and their enthusiasm, they’re a wonderful shot in the arm,” she said.

According to a report produced for Airbnb entitled “Home Sharing: A Powerful Option to Help Older Americans Stay in their Homes,” adults over the age of 60 are the fastest-growing demographic within the Airbnb community. In the last year alone, the number of Airbnb hosts in that age group has more than doubled

Apparently, the demographic is also proving popular with travelers. Older women hosts receive more five-star reviews from their guests than other hosts.

The report further noted that 82 percent of older American hosts say that Airbnb has helped them stay more socially and emotionally connected, and 83 percent say that hosting on Airbnb has helped them stay more mentally engaged.

While the report says that the typical Airbnb host over the age of 65 makes $8,350 annually, Belliveau does caution would-be hosts that if you live in a popular area, as she does, there tends to be an “over-supply” of hosts, making it more difficult to rely on hosting for a steady stream of income.

Furthermore, you may face some added costs as a result of becoming an Airbnb host. For example, while Airbnb provides supplemental liability insurance, your regular homeowner insurance premiums will probably go up, as you’re now considered a “rental property.”

Still, for many older workers, experts say that the disadvantage of an unpredictable income is outweighed by the benefits of supplemental income in general, the opportunity to become more active, flexibility to take time off when needed or desired, social interaction, and a sense of purpose.

“I couldn’t do this full-time,” said Uber driver Barry Belle. “But for this time in my life, this fits the bill.”