The sharing economy is going to innovate us into the Victorian Era

A sociologist shares stories from members of the new American underclass.

Facing a dearth of full-time opportunities offering nice things like “benefits” and “health insurance,” the modern millennial go-getter is free to use the gig economy pursue their passions or even fund a second career — all for the low price of driving around neighbors or helping with housework.

If this sounds a tad too much like the shiny rhetoric of Silicon Valley instead of the actual lived reality of toiling in the gig economy, that’s because it is. As Alexandrea Ravenelle writes in her book Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy, the idea of the self-empowered Uber driver or Airbnb host is a rarity if not an outright myth. Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at Mercy College, interviewed dozens of New Yorkers about their experiences with Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and the now-defunct on-demand chef service Kitchensurfing. The resulting picture is a horrorscape of waived workplace protections, unsafe conditions, and rampant discrimination and harassment.

Ravenelle divides the gig workers she interviewed into three rough tiers: Strugglers, who join the sharing economy out of desperation rather than preference; Strivers, professional-class part-timers who take on gigs for extra cash; and Success Stories, many of whom come from means and leverage the sharing economy to grow their already considerable capital. The undercompensated, underemployed Strugglers are particularly vulnerable to abusive clients and opaque algorithms which dictate their ability to secure subsistence through smartphone apps.

In misclassifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees, Ravenelle writes, sharing economy platforms rob workers of bargaining power and force them into dangerous, even criminal, circumstances. Per Hustle and Gig, the casualization of labor makes for a regression to pre-New Deal workplace predation, with laborers treated as expendable and replaceable. In an interview with The Outline, Ravenelle spoke about the implications of her research, why the sharing economy remains poorly regulated, and the enduring stigma of gig work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Based on your research, do you believe that the ubiquity of the major sharing economy platforms — specifically Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit — have increased income inequality in New York City?

Absolutely. What they’ve essentially done is divide people into the individuals who get to do the demanding, and the workers who are working on demand. Airbnb, for example, has made it possible for people who already have strong incomes to become even more successful. And even though these platforms market themselves as bringing entrepreneurship to the masses, offering a way for people to supplement their salaries, I think individuals are not really making as much money as they’d like to be making, and the platforms are not doing enough to equalize the playing field.

One of your focuses is the volume of unpaid work that participation in these sharing apps necessitates: responding to emails, traveling to gigs, even refreshing the apps without any guarantee of being compensated. Among the Strugglers and Strivers you interviewed, how much unpaid work would you say goes into an average gig on the four platforms you studied?

It depends on whether somebody is willing to do emergency or same-day tasks. For instance, on TaskRabbit, it would be probably about two hours of unpaid work for every hour of paid work. There’s orientation, and that can be a couple of hours. There’s travel back and forth. There’s uploading your profile, responding to people, putting in your availability. And then even if it’s something like Airbnb, where you’re being paid for hosting a person as opposed to by a task, even then you’ve got to decorate the room, get the room cleaned, make sure you’re doing the laundry, respond to people through the app, and handle the the key exchange. It’s a lot of unpaid labor.

Many of your interview subjects were young college graduates. Does the sharing economy prey upon millennials with overwhelming college debt?

Yes. We know that millennials are graduating with very high levels of student-loan debt. We also know that, especially when I started doing my research in 2015, there were very low levels in terms of gainful employment in jobs of the type you would expect to have with a college degree. I think this whole idea of a side hustle, and working in the gig economy to both supplement income and to help people pay back student debts, is very much preying upon millennials.

They’re also a generation that has smartphones. At this point smartphones are so prevalent, but when the gig economy first began they weren’t as prevalent. And so we see millennials as early adopters of technology, and not having the same types of family commitments that might make it harder for them to do these kinds of flexible on-demand jobs.

One of the reasons often cited for poor regulation of giant internet platforms is that government can’t help but be reactive to late-rising technology. Do you expect regulation to eventually catch up to sharing economy platforms in the U.S.?

Regulation is not always the answer, but some regulation is definitely the answer. I’m optimistic that at some point we will see more regulation being applied to these platforms, at least in terms of how workers are classified: recognizing that perhaps the platforms should not be the number-one determinant of whether a worker is an independent contractor or a W-2 employee.

Over the last couple of years Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has introduced bills in Congress to do a pilot study of portable benefits for gig workers. Supposedly this year that will be reintroduced again and Congress will spend some time looking at it. So I think that people are beginning to realize that there is a problem, and I’m honestly hoping that people realize just how big of a problem this is, and that there will be more attention paid to protecting these workers.

I say this over and over again, but the gig economy really is this movement forward to the past. We’re constantly seeing worker protections being rolled back, and workers are essentially in the same types of situations as their great-grandparents were.

You cite the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the 1911 incident in which nearly 150 people died as a result of being locked in their workplace, as a labor catastrophe that helped usher in the New Deal and a wave of 20th-century workplace protections. Would something that dire need to happen on one of the sharing economy apps for public and political sentiment to turn against them and improve conditions for workers?

I have a number of Google Alerts set up for “gig economy,” for “Uber,” for “Airbnb,” and so every bad story that has come up in the last few months I get into my Gmail — Gmail is an incredibly depressing place to be these days. There was a pregnant Lyft driver who was stabbed and killed; other drivers have been assaulted. I hope something on the magnitude of the Triangle fire doesn’t happen, but it might require something that big and attention-getting, or a couple more books like mine, to really bring attention to what’s going on with gig workers.

I think about the Instacart fiasco of just a couple of weeks ago [in which the on-demand grocery service was revealed to be relying on tips to subsidize the rate it paid its workers] and the changes that occurred as a result. People got outraged — I think reasonably so — about how the workers were being paid, how their tips were essentially being used by the company to subsidize their labor costs. That was able to create change.

I’m afraid that it might take a huge disaster to enact real change. But I’m optimistic that with enough attention being brought to the experience of the workers, change could happen — that people will start to realize that for all they’ve read about this being entrepreneurship, there’s a lot more going on deep below the surface.

You also discuss how during the early 1900s, a generation of muckraker journalists helped expose oppressive factory conditions. This decade we’ve seen not only a huge consolidation of media, but also outright hostility toward journalism from many parts of the country. Do you feel these have negatively impacted workers in the sharing economy?

I think it’s actually twofold. In the very beginning, a lot of the articles about gig work were celebratory. People thought this was going to be the future of work: It would lend flexibility, it was going to be great. And then as time went on we started to see that it wasn’t a sharing economy so much as a servant economy. [Within sociology], we are definitely seeing that there are negative connotations about what everyone calls mainstream media, that there’s a questioning about stories that are being reported. And then of course we have the whole “fake news” thing. Now I think that people don’t trust [the media] as much, and I think that there is a bit of backlash, and that that is probably affecting the effort to get attention to the experience of gig economy workers.

Also — I make this point in the book — people talk to their Uber drivers, they talk to their Airbnb hosts. Drivers and hosts will say, “Oh, it’s great.” And the point I always come back to, over and over again, is if your boss asks you what you think about your job, you’re going to say, ��It’s great!” Because if you don’t, you might not have that job much longer.

The same thing applies to gig workers: In that moment, you are that person’s boss. You are ranking them and rating them, and their future is in your hands. Their pay is in your hands, as is whether they’re able to stay on the platform and where they are in the algorithm to enable additional work. I think that a lot of people miss this, and also I think people don’t necessarily know the questions to ask. When was the last time you asked your Uber driver if anyone’s ever peed on the seat that you’re sitting on? You don’t actually want to know the answer to that question.

What they’ve essentially done is divide people into the individuals who get to do the demanding, and the workers who are working on demand.

You found that a huge component of Airbnb listings in New York City are pretty blatantly illegal. Given the resultant effect on real estate value and availability, it seems like it would be in the interest of residents for the city to crack down on illegal Airbnb listings. Why isn’t that a bigger priority right now?

The office in New York City that is responsible for cracking down on [illegal] Airbnb listings is the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. It’s the same office that used to be in charge of cleaning up Times Square and getting rid of prostitution. They operate on complaint only, and one of the big challenges for them is that it can’t just be that somebody complains, but they have to catch [them] in action. So they have to actually go to that apartment, talk to the person who’s there, and have the person be like, “Yes, I’m doing Airbnb.” They also have to be able to get access, to have somebody let them into that building so they can get up to that apartment, because if they just buzz, that person might not let them in, or they might not be home.

I think that they are trying, but I think that they’re mostly focusing on these bigger busts that have been in the news: the Metropolitan Property Group, and then that big luxury condo that had 20-something [Airbnb] units. So I think that the city is trying, but their hands are tied a little bit. Instead of somebody just being able to say, “Hey, I know there’s an Airbnb in X building, I see the lockboxes, I see the people with the suitcases,” and then being able to contact the landlord and do something, they have to wait until they get all of the information and they have the actual address. It’s a challenge.

Your historical surveys suggest that the current ubiquity of the sharing economy is a pretty uniquely American phenomenon. Are there any individual cities or foreign countries which have adequately regulated these companies in favor of workers and citizens?

In terms of adequately regulating, it’s difficult for cities to really crack down and encourage a balance because it ends up being deregulation from the bottom up. Once people are convinced they can make some money on this, then start making some money, it becomes difficult to get out the message that this is not good. There have been some cities that have tried to crack down on Airbnb, and we’ve seen Uber get kicked out of Austin. But I think people are mostly still struggling with how to protect the workers.

In your conclusion, you speak to the sentiment that sharing economy platforms aren’t really tech companies so much as service providers — yet they’re sheltered by this false assumption of technological innovation. There’s a sense that if a regular taxi or real estate company flouted regulation to this extent, they’d face public outcry. Why are we less harsh on quote-unquote “tech companies?”

Technology has this veil of being complicated and hard to understand. Most people don’t really understand how their computer works or how their TV works. So when you call something a technology it makes it seem both cool and difficult, and there’s a sense that because technology changes so quickly, these companies have to be able to change quickly. As a result, people are less likely to question why a company needs to be able to dispose of workers on an instant’s notice, why a company can’t pay benefits, why it’s so important that a company be able to pivot and change their pay for workers.

If you walked into work today and your boss was like, “I’m just gonna change how much I pay you” and then did it again three weeks later, you would be very upset. But because these are technology companies — partnered with the marketing that these companies have done that they offer flexible work, and you can’t get flexibility unless you’re willing to work as an independent contractor — all of this together combines to create this thing that people don’t really understand. They don’t even want to get into it.

I also think the platforms themselves market this idea that participation in the sharing economy is a choice. They’ve spun this tale that people are turning to gigs as fun side-hustles as opposed to the fact that people really are counting on them. There are some Strugglers in the book who were doing this as their full-time work or at least as their only source of income. Sudden pivots have been really disastrous for them.

But they also have been real disasters for anyone who has created their life around this. When Kitchensurfing closed, the workers, in some cases, had given up full-time jobs. They had spent thousands of dollars on catering supplies in order to work through this platform. And all of a sudden they close, and, sure, chefs could download their reviews, but there’s no way for them to transfer those reviews or transfer their algorithmic ranking to another platform. People just end up being extra stuck.