Love it or hate it, the one aspect of the “gig economy” that most people agree on is its newness. No discussion about the future of work is complete without someone contrasting the old world of traditional employee jobs with the new world of workers without employers, piecing an income together from a series of “gigs” or tasks. Perhaps some copywriting in the so-called human cloud in the morning; a few hours making jewellery to sell on Etsy in the afternoon; a spot of Uber driving in the evening. We forget history. Go back to the 18th century and you would find a place like London was one big gig economy. Few people had jobs as we know them now; most were hired intermittently and were paid by the “piece” or task. There was an eclectic mix of payment arrangements depending on the nature of the work. The carpenters who maintained the timber starlings on London Bridge were paid per tide, according to Judy Stephenson, an economic historian. Even workers in prestigious institutions like Westminster Abbey had to submit invoices for their services. The abbey’s scullion, the most menial worker in the kitchen, submitted a bill in 1703 for sweeping the chimney and weeding the yard. She waited six months to be paid. Are we looping back on ourselves? We are certainly not there yet. According to estimates of the size of the gig economy by the McKinsey Global Institute, 70 to 80 per cent of people in the US and Europe have nothing to do with it. What is more, 70 per cent of the people working independently are doing it because they like it. Still, that leaves 30 per cent who are “gigging” as a last resort. It is this group that policymakers, including UK prime minister Theresa May, are most worried about. She has ordered a review into workers’ rights to make sure those in the gig economy benefit from “flexibility and innovation” and do not fall through the cracks into an 18th-century world. The courts may pre-empt her. This week, a panel of three men will meet in London to decide the outcome of an employment tribunal case between Uber and the GMB union. The GMB alleges that Uber’s 30,000 London drivers are not “independent contractors” but “workers” owed the minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay. It is a genuine grey area. In some ways, Uber’s drivers do seem to work for themselves. They have freedom to decide whether to log on to the app and do some work. But in other ways, Uber exerts a lot of control. It does not tell the drivers where the customers want to go until they pick them up. It sets the fee. And it can “deactivate” drivers whose customer ratings drop too low (though Uber insists it does this only rarely). If the tribunal panel finds for the GMB, it could broaden the legal definition of who counts as a worker in the UK – emboldening similar claimants in other countries, while making many in Britain’s gig economy eligible for more rights and protections. Yet Uber insists most of its drivers do not want this. It has polled 1,000 of them and found 76 per cent would rather give up these rights to maintain their flexibility to work when they want, while 16 per cent would prefer the opposite deal. One answer could be for gig economy companies to let workers choose between arrangements: one where they exert control over how the person works in exchange for some protection, and the other where the person has more freedom but shoulders more risk. A hybrid workforce should still be nimble enough to meet consumer demands. The key is to stop companies from having the power of an employer but none of the responsibility. The waters are muddy but judges and policymakers are right to wade in. Better that than to sleepwalk into a “future of work” that looks a lot like the past.