October 6, 2014

Downsides and Dangers: Old-Economy Jobs, New-Economy Gigs

David, in a comment on this post – Taxi Crash – links to an article in Techcrunch by John Evans worthy of foregrounding:


When Old-Economy Jobs Become New-Economy Gigs
… our 21st-century sharing-economy dream is beginning to look worryingly like a 19th-century robber-baron nightmare. When sharing-economy gigs supplement your income from your job, that’s great, everybody wins. But when sharing-economy gigs are your job? That’s different.As the New York Times puts it, sharing-economy workers:

are less microentrepreneurs than microearners. They often work seven-day weeks, trying to assemble a living wage from a series of one-off gigs […] With piecemeal gigs easier to obtain than long-term employment, a new class of laborer, dependent on precarious work and wages, is emerging.

Re-emerging is probably a better word. In the early 20th century, the labor movement won workers eight-hour days, weekends, paid time off, etc. Before then, most labored like serfs, working long hours all week with no job security, no benefits, no vacations, no real prospect of advancement…
…in other words, exactly what you get today when you work at sharing-economy gigs, rather than at, you know, a job. …
Don’t get me wrong. I’m an engineer. I love efficiency and optimization. But it’s hard to simultaneously optimize for both profits and people. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that algorithms which boost the former often tend to be pretty hard on the latter.
… as I’ve put it before: “sharing economy” is mostly spin. It mostly consists of people who have excess disposable income hiring those who do not. It’s hard to shake the feeling that, as in the 19th century, the world of work is dividing ever further between haves and have-nots–sharing-economy customers, and sharing-economy providers.
For haves like us, everything is awesome. And if things are rough for the have-nots, hey, that’s not technology’s fault, right? That’s a simple side effect of supply and demand, combined with, you know, healthy competition.
True, Uber and Lyft are in land-grab mode right now, and drivers are reaping the benefits. But land grabs don’t last forever, and there’s a glut of labor out there. … Once the land grabs are over, most gig workers will be trivially replaceable, or even entirely disposable–and will suffer the consequences. …
So the real question remains: is technology destroying jobs faster than it’s creating them? Are we moving from a Mediocristan world, wherein most people contribute a little, to Extremistan, wherein an ever-diminishing minority uses the lever of ever-improving technology to move the world to their liking, while more and more are excluded from jobs and must fight and scrap to get by with endless dead-end, barely-livable gigs?
That is one of this decade’s most important questions, and if the answer is “yes,” then the sharing economy is no solution. It’s barely even a band-aid.

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  1. The problem is not the “sharing economy” (which should actually be renamed the “collaborative economy”). The problem is the system it has emerged from. A system that commodifies every aspect of public and private life. A system that doesn’t put people and earth first, but instead makes tyrant out of profit. A system supported by a media that doesn’t do the work to truly understand what the “sharing economy” is and instead eats bowlfuls of hype from those who’ve co-opted the term.
    The “sharing economy” is *not* mostly spin – but rather it is mostly a community-built model for connecting people through shared stuff, space, knowledge and interests in a way that reduces harm to the Commons. It is born of necessity and it’s singular purpose is to serve the needs of its participants and the larger community (not a need for profit).
    Uber, Lyft, Airbnb… these are digital platforms that enable p2p commerce. They are one small piece of the collaborative economy puzzle – amplified in importance because of the multi-billions of dollars backing them, the predatorial tactics their company heads employ to obliterate competition and the middle-class exceptionalism that its users are privileged to enjoy (myself included). Profitability is like glitter – sparkly and distracting from the shape of the beast it sticks to.
    Focus your attention instead at the tool libraries, the co-ops, the maker spaces and community gardens.
    It is an insult to all of our intelligence to focus on the failures of the sharing economy for providing stable employment. That we should see such rise and ubiquity of precarious labour is rather a failure of our system – which is so deregulated as to become criminal (as in crimes against humanity).

  2. The author makes a fundamental error in stating “It mostly consists of people who have excess disposable income hiring those who do not”. The sharing, or collaborative economy consists of people who have excess disposable ANYTHING exchanging it with a counterparty in need of that thing. Sounds like a pretty powerful concept to me.

  3. 20th century ‘jobs’ may not be what people really want today. Organized labour gave us safe workplaces, decent wages, paid vacations, medical/dental benefits, and pensions. But ‘job jobs’ also come bundled with mundane repetition, static job descriptions, seniority-based promotions and a long, long march to freedom when you ‘retire’. Most 20th century management jobs require huge time commitment, ambition to ‘climb the ladder’, and conformity to corporate culture (e.g. dress code, conservative business-oriented philosophies, etc). Lots of people aren’t into that now.
    Many people today want to have a variety of creative projects and gigs. Ten years ago, employers really struggled with turnover as people churned through jobs looking for new challenges. Setting up flexible, short-term arrangements with contract workers is not just the benefit of the employer, but also to be attractive to the demands of the labour force. If Uber required drivers to commit to exclusive full-time employment with the company and structured compensation to incentivize long-term loyal drivers, I don’t believe so people would be as excited about working for them.

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