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The resurgence of gig work: Historical and theoretical perspectives

Digital platform businesses primarily utilise on-call contingent workers, using their own tools and equipment, to perform the productive work associated with the supplied service. The expansion of this business model has led some to proclaim that traditional ‘jobs’ will come to an end. Some welcome this development, others fear its consequences for the stability and quality of work – but most see it as driven primarily by technology, and therefore largely ‘inevitable’. This article provides historical and theoretical perspective on the expansion of digitally mediated work, to better understand the range of forces (technological, economic and socio-political) at work. It shows that the major features of platform work were all visible in earlier periods of capitalism, but they became less prominent with the rise of the ‘standard employment relationship’ in the 20th century. The rise and fall of the standard employment relationship is described with reference to the changing context for the labour extraction effort of private employers. A better understanding of the complete range of forces driving changes in work organisation, and a rejection of the assumption that they are technologically determined and hence inevitable, can inform regulatory and political responses to the rise of platform work.