• Flexible workers have been crucial during the pandemic – maintaining the flow of vital goods and services.
  • But their employment status means they don't often have a financial safety net.
  • Digital platforms can provide a range of benefits to support this growing workforce.

The pandemic shook the world in countless ways — including the fundamental nature of how, when and where we work. The quarantines and stay-in-place edicts gave rise to new armies of gig workers who delivered our groceries, restaurant orders, and household goods. Companies accelerated the use of flexible workforces, engaging them as demand warranted.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed conceivable that more and more workers would enjoy long careers without ever being full-time employees.

While older workers still may prefer full-time employment, we’ve learned that younger generations prefer the freedom of choosing when, where and how much they work. But the pandemic, and resulting recession, also exposed the vulnerability of flexible workers — who in some cases were the first to be furloughed, with no net to cushion the blow.

We owe it to ourselves to create a safety net for the drivers, couriers, food shoppers and many other platform workers who play a critical role in holding our economies together, as was evident during the pandemic.

Challenges of flexible working

The past 15 months has also revealed that there are a sizeable number of workers who prefer the freedoms of flexible employment. The European Commission says 11% of European workers have used digital platforms for gigs “and the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation and the expansion of platform business models in the internal market”.

What’s more, the latest survey by ADP found that more than half of the global workforce say they are more interested in contract work since the advent of COVID-19.

Our own research indicates that the economic impact is huge. A study commissioned by Mastercard expects the flexible economy to grow 17.4% annually, representing $455 billion in global activity through the end of 2023.

In Europe, we found through additional research that around 1 in 10 of the total workforce earns income through non-traditional means — with the majority being freelance workers and around 15% being platform-based gig workers. Clearly, more jobs in the future will be flexible and, with the right moves, desirable.

Yet the sea change in how we work comes with its own set of issues, as many of these workers lack the financial protections that full-time employees enjoy during downtimes. As the pandemic spread last spring, researchers in France found that 56% of freelancers surveyed said they had stopped working and nearly a third had seen their income fall. In the UK, just 2% of workers said they had access to life, income protection or critical Illness insurance and nearly half of self-employed workers between ages 35 to 55 have no private pension savings.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation and the expansion of platform business models in the internal market”.

—European Commission.

The good news is that a growing number of the companies that depend on flexible workforces realize that providing a safety net gives them a competitive advantage — particularly as demand for flex workers heats up. Mastercard is committed to collaborating with these employers to develop the platform, products, and partnerships with financial services providers so that businesses can not only pay their workers but provide personal financial tools, insurance, and other portable benefits.

In 2015, Mastercard made a commitment to the World Bank to make universal financial access a reality, connecting 500 million people to the digital economy by 2020. We achieved that goal last year and are now targeting a total of 1 billion people globally by 2025.

Future of the digital economy

The popularity of services like Uber, Deliveroo, TaskRabbit and Fiverr has shown that flexible work is enabled largely via digital platforms. In a cashless society, accessing the digital economy is increasingly the same as accessing work itself.

We’ve begun to study solutions with Xynteo and Europe Delivers – a business-led partnership created to pursue growth models that are more sustainable, inclusive and vibrant. We recently brought together (virtually) more than 60 flexible workers, businesses, entrepreneurs, FinTech start-ups, labour groups, universities, NGOs and workers, who provided some of the best insights.

During our three-day innovation sprint, the workers shared the challenges they face — the wild swings in income, employers who take three months to pay, and the lack of financial education they received from schools and their parents. We heard and explored the risks of “unintended lock-in” — the idea that many freelancers never expected to do so for long and thus, didn’t plan for the long-term.

Stories like these reinforce the need to support these workers with a safety net that comes in the form of an easy-to-use website or app. Imagine an innovative platform where businesses pay their freelancers almost at once — while providing benefits and an “income smoothing” programme that shifts income during boom times into a saving account that workers can tap when the work slows. The freelancers can also receive personal finance content, including primers on business skills like pricing and budgeting.

These ideas provide a good start and by collaborating with European business leaders, workers, policy shapers and big thinkers, we can together build a better financial safety net for this burgeoning workforce. Flexible workers played a critical role in keeping our communities running during the pandemic. All of us now have an obligation to make sure the flexible work economy works for all.