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.