Amid economic collapse, older Venezuelans turn to gig work

In 2020, then 66-year-old Guillermina Alfonso was struggling to make ends meet as a professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “If I had any medical emergencies, I wouldn’t have been able to go to a clinic or get extra medication. Getting new clothes or shoes was an absolute no-go. No social outings or fun trips,” she told Rest of World. “I only worked to eat.”

So Alfonso, a biologist with a PhD in molecular biology, turned to gig work. She paid for online courses to qualify herself to apply for jobs on online gig platforms like Workana, We Are Content, Upwork, and Freelancer to complement her salary. After she moved to Spain at the end of 2021, she submitted her resume to some academic institutions in her new home country, but never heard back. She suspects it was because of her age. From then on, online gig work became her primary source of income.

“Working remotely with content creation, there are no issues with age, because you don’t see faces,” said Alfonso, who is now 70. “What matters is that the content is of quality and that it works.”

Online gig work, otherwise known as “cloudwork,” commonly refers to freelance work mediated by digital platforms, which can be done from anywhere in the world. Tasks vary from data annotation and labeling for artificial intelligence training to translating academic material or creating content for brands. Clients range from multibillion-dollar companies like Amazon to individuals requesting one-off services.

“Working remotely with content creation, there are no issues with age, because you don’t see faces.”

According to a 2021 study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the average age of an online gig worker is about 31 years. But older workers like Alfonso, who have been turned away from opportunities in the formal job market due to their age, have also found a lifeline in this type of work.

In Venezuela, where conditions for older people are dire, online gig work is particularly attractive. According to the Venezuelan Finance Observatory, retired workers receive pensions equivalent to $3.50 per month, plus occasional discretionary bonuses that can reach up to $30 per month.

The World Bank states a person needs at least $2.15 per day to live above the poverty line. “This means that with the pension (equivalent to $3.50), an elderly person in Venezuela can barely survive for two days above the poverty line. On the other 28 days, they depend on others,” Luis Francisco Cabezas, managing director at Convite, a Venezuelan organization dedicated to defending the rights of older people and other marginalized groups, told Rest of World. Convite reports that 55% of the 1,535 elderly Venezuelans it surveyed say their monthly expenses exceed $100.

Many of these older Venezuelans have turned to online gig work — and in particular  “clickwork,” a type of cloudwork in which people earn pennies by labeling and annotating data to train AI systems. In 2021, Julian Posada, an assistant professor at Yale University and a member of the law school’s Information Society Project, published data analysis from web traffic aggregator websites, focusing on platforms that crowdsource data work. Posada identified that after the U.S., Venezuela hosts the largest number of data workers in the world.

Older people’s experiences during Covid-19 lockdowns also played a role in them seeking online work, according to Convite’s Cabezas. Trapped at home, they were forced to familiarize themselves with online tools to communicate with family and access payment services, he said. “The pandemic left as a legacy a significant increase in the technological literacy of elderly people, and the diaspora has also brought them close to technology, either to communicate with grandchildren and children that have left, or to deal with platforms to convert dollars that people have sent (them) into bolivares,” said Cabezas.

6% The estimated percentage of the online gig workforce in Latin America represented by people over the age of 55.

World Bank

At 52, Rafael Ramírez, a former systems engineer and teacher in Caracas, has not had a formal job since he quit his previous role at an institute in 2015. Since then, he has been doing online work — mostly translations, classes, and tutoring on platforms like Workana, Freelancer, and Babelcube. Ramírez told Rest of World he sees postings which require significant experience but limit applicants’ age to below 30. “People of a certain age, of certain experience, don’t suit companies because they would have to pay them according to their knowledge,” he said.

Ramírez now puts in 20 to 40 hours a week on various platforms, earning between $200 and $300 per month. That’s the equivalent of two or three times the monthly minimum pay in Venezuela, although rampant inflation means his wages don’t go very far. He’s now teaching himself how to invest in crypto and is building an investment fund, which includes crypto assets, for when he retires. Once he’s learned well enough how to navigate such investments, he plans on leaving the gig work platforms.

As a computer science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, 49-year-old Yusneiyi Carballo earns around $150 a month, working between 50 to 60 hours a week. She earns additional income doing online gigs, mostly ghost writing for We Are Content, a Colombian company. That earns her an additional $200 to $215, on average.

“A great advantage of remote work … is that they don’t pay much attention to your age,” she told Rest of World. “I believe that in face-to-face work, yes, there is still a certain bias regarding age when they are going to hire you in some cases.”

There’s a dearth of age-specific data about cloudworkers around the world. Fairwork, a project at the Oxford Internet Institute that researches platform work globally, doesn’t keep statistics broken down by age, but estimated that in 2020 there were 163 million online gig workers around the world. A 2023 World Bank report estimated that in different regions across the world, people over the age of 55 represent around 3.8% of the online gig workforce, or approximately 6.2 million workers. In Latin America and the Caribbean, they account for 6%, which would suggest millions of older workers.

According to Fairwork, cloudwork platforms “have gained momentum in recent years as alternatives for workers, especially those who are marginalized in formal labor markets due to geography, discrimination, disability, care responsibilities, and other factors.”

I.I., a 60-year-old former lawyer in Caracas, started doing online work during the pandemic. Today, through Remotasks and Appen, I.I., who requested to be identified by her initials because the platforms prohibit workers from speaking to the media, is involved in data training and annotation for AI algorithms.

Maintaining a career as a lawyer in Venezuela was difficult given the tense political context, she told Rest of World. “In my country’s current situation, it is hard to exercise my career and I fear for my life, which is why I prefer to do other things.” Working on sensitive legal cases posed physical risks to her well-being, she said.

Most of the Venezuelan gig workers Rest of World spoke to said that they taught themselves how to do much of the work. I.I. said she studies the guidelines provided by platforms for each task before taking qualifying tests to participate in projects. Carballo, the computer science professor, said her familiarity with technology has helped her ease into the industry. “Due to the fact that I am a computer scientist, these tools are no stranger to me,” she said. For Carballo, what helps most is having a good attitude towards the tools which, she said, make many people feel threatened.

Omar Alfonzo, a 53-year-old graphic designer and video editor from Caracas, uses video tutorials on YouTube and Twitch to learn new skills. He is also part of a WhatsApp community for people who use Blender, an open-source 3D computer graphics resource.

Today, Alfonzo makes around $400 per month. He told Rest of World he enjoys the type of work he does, and because of this passion, he feels encouraged to keep up with emerging technologies.

“I know people my age, around 50, that are truly outdated. Technology has overwhelmed them, but I have made a point of always staying up to date,” said Alfonzo. But he shrugged off the prospect of ever being able to retire. “Retiring? I don’t think the situation allows me, not even as a joke.”

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