Sharing Economy Helping or Hurting?

By: Ephrat Livni of QZ

No kid ever dreamed of growing up and driving for Uber or styling for Stitch Fix. In part, that’s because none of those companies existed when most of today’s adults were young. It’s also because, besides its much-touted “flexibility,” the gig economy isn’t much of a place to build a career. Instead, over the course of less than a decade, the self-described “tech companies” that connect people to gig work have managed to erode hard-fought labor protections in place for a century.

In Hustle and Gig, to be published in March by University of California Press, sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle interviews 80 gig workers who are struggling, striving, and succeeding. She analyzes their stories in the context of US employment history and concludes that “for all its app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles the early industrial age…the sharing economy is truly a movement forward to the past.”

Although gig work was initially seen as a way to maximize worker freedom and create opportunities, it has, in its short history, proven corrosive. Ravenelle notes that a small percentage of people are making lots of money via side hustles, but they tend to be those who need it least. For example, she speaks to independent hoteliers in New York renting out rooms and apartments via AirBnB, including a corporate lawyer and a man with a chain of laundromats. Because they already had capital, have steady sources of income apart from their side gigs, and are willing to skirt rental laws, these two individuals are able to invest heavily in their “gigs” and create lucrative businesses.

Sadly, those who most need to work can find themselves trapped in a cycle of struggle. Ravenelle interviewed men and women signed up to do tasks on Task Rabbit—prior to its acquisition by IKEA—and who drove for Uber, for example. They were not employees and so had no health insurance, workers’ compensation protections, employer contributions to Social Security and payroll taxes, paid time off, family leave protections, discrimination protections, or unemployment insurance benefits.

Sometimes, this gig work also requires an initial outlay of capital. (My own neighbor just traded in her old vehicle for a new car, taking on thousands of dollars in debt so that she can make extra money driving for Lyft.) At the very least, a potential worker needs a smartphone and wi-fi service. Ravanelle’s book boasts an image inside of a young man in a park panhandling for $30 to activate his phone service so that he can start picking up work.

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