In Hustle and Gig, Alexandrea J. Ravenelle shares the personal stories of nearly eighty predominantly millennial workers from Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kitchensurfing. Their stories underline the volatility of working in the gig economy: the autonomy these young workers expected has been usurped by the need to maintain algorithm-approved acceptance and response rates. The sharing economy upends generations of workplace protections such as worker safety; workplace protections around discrimination and sexual harassment; the right to unionize; and the right to redress for injuries. Discerning three types of gig economy workers—Success Stories, who have used the gig economy to create the life they want; Strugglers, who can’t make ends meet; and Strivers, who have stable jobs and use the sharing economy for extra cash—Ravenelle examines the costs, benefits, and societal impact of this new economic movement. Poignant and evocative, Hustle and Gig exposes how the gig economy is the millennial’s version of minimum-wage precarious work.
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About the Author
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Strugglers, Strivers, and Success Stories
Sarah was unemployed. After leaving a position in casting for a critically acclaimed Netflix show, the twenty-nine-year-old waited for a series of promised jobs that never panned out. A friend recommended TaskRabbit.
At first, Sarah thought the site was a waste of time, but the traditional nine-to-five jobs she was finding elsewhere were unappealing. "Everything I wanted to do pretty much didn't pay, like film work," she said. "So I just kind of stayed with TaskRabbit. I could build a schedule, and it was just really reliable. I couldn't believe that I could make a living off of it."
Before long, more than 90 percent of her income was coming from TaskRabbit, and Sarah made plans for her first "actual vacation," a trip to Puerto Rico. A week before her trip, TaskRabbit announced its first pivot, changing from a bidding marketplace to more of a temporary-agency model, with Tasker availability posted in four-hour increments. Workers were required to respond to client emails within thirty minutes and accept 85 percent of their offered gigs.
"I was just freaking out the entire time, and I didn't know if I should spend any money on fun things on my vacation. I didn't know what was going to happen, and [TaskRabbit] kept saying it was a really good thing," she said. "But [the Taskers] kept saying, 'It's not a good thing,' and everyone was really worried."
Concerned that she would slip below the 85 percent acceptance rate, Sarah felt a lot of pressure to accept any work she was offered. "I had no control over what I would be getting and when. So I just took pretty much everything that I could," she said, including cleaning an apartment that she described as "a crack den." She told me, "I was actually nervous in there. ... You would think that a lot of drugs happened there — basically everything just looked like it was covered in dirt and mud. It almost looked like there was mud even on the pillows. And I was like, 'I can vacuum and clean your bathroom.'"
But being picky about tasks has its own risks. In Sarah's experience, TaskRabbit's algorithm highlights people with high acceptance rates or high availability. "They want you on call for free," she said, before describing her schedule instability as "frustrating. ... [Y]ou are always thinking, 'Oh, in five months I am going to be [sleeping] on a bench somewhere.'"
Baran, twenty-eight, is a college student at a local university who drives for Uber and Lyft. In New York, app-based drivers have the same insurance and licensing requirements as taxi drivers, a cost that usually runs several thousand dollars. To sidestep this considerable start-up expense and the associated annual costs, some drivers rent a licensed, insured, and Uber-approved car through local services or utilize Uber's fleet-owner and driver matching service. Baran rents such a car for four hundred dollars a week. "You have to work at least three days to just cover your [car] expenses," he says. "Two days for the rent, and one more day sometimes for the gas and other things. After the three days, whatever you make, it just belongs to you."
Baran works twelve-hour shifts, from eight a.m. to eight p.m., on his workdays and tries to make $250 per day after accounting for the Uber fees, but before paying for tolls. He showed me his weekly earnings: most were under $800. His earnings showed a single week of making over $1,000. "That week I was really lucky," he said. "I kept going back and forth to the airport. It was like finding a unicorn."
In the tech world, a "unicorn" is a statistical rarity, a privately held startup worth over a billion dollars. In Baran's experience of driving for Uber, making a thousand dollars — before paying for weekly car rental expenses — is equally mythical.
Baran describes his costs as "spending money to make money," but each week he incurs a considerable debt that he must work off before he can earn the money he needs for rent and food. He's thankful he isn't using one of the Uber or Santander financing programs (discussed in chapter 3), either of which, he says, amounts to "a deep hole" and "modern slavery." But his current pay-to-work situation also sounds suspiciously like indentured servitude, a practice outlawed more than a hundred years ago.
"The sharing economy is the term which they use for getting around rules so they don't have to pay taxes. ... I'm not a partner. I'm an independent contractor. Partner means that you are sharing somewhat, because you are partners. All of the costs have been covered by me. ... I'm not a partner. I'm an independent contractor. They can kick me out anytime they want. If I was a partner, they couldn't do that," he said. "They can do whatever they want. [Uber] became a forty-billion-dollar company. What can you do?"
Baran tries to not think about his gig work too much. "Uber is for me — it's like I go to an isolated place. I don't want to, you know, bring anything home from that place to my normal life," he said. "I don't want anybody to think I have something to do with it."
Shaun, thirty-seven, an African American male, is another New York City transplant. Previously living in Westchester, a suburb north of New York City, he turned to TaskRabbit when the cleaning service he was affiliated with couldn't provide any work. "I came to New York City basically out of desperation to find some type of work," he said.
When I met Shaun, he was splitting his time between two part-time gigs: four days a week as a part-time personal assistant and two to three days a week on TaskRabbit. "Normally I try and set goals, saying, 'If I make at least two hundred dollars in two days, then I could just rest on a Sunday,'" he said. "The only thing that I kind of regret is that I lack a social life."
Working seven days a week doesn't leave much time for friends, but Shaun has credit card debt and firsthand experience with the challenges of finding housing on a low income. "I was homeless a couple of times before. I was literally living on the streets," he said. "Since it was September and it was still warm, I decided to just stay on the streets versus going to the shelter. Every once in a while I'd actually go to Airbnb and get some place to sleep. But I mostly remained on the streets until I was able to afford a place where I could go weekly. The first place I went to was Long Island City [a neighborhood in Queens]; but the roommate was an asshole, so I moved into an illegally run hostel. When I got tired of that, I moved to a room. And I've been there ever since."
"The personal assistant job is enough by itself to rent the room and take care of myself, but it is not enough to help me unload the credit card debt and to save up money," he explained. "So this basically helps me save money and to help get rid of debt. ... I'm not planning on doing this for long; I'm just trying until I can work at a stable job. ... [A]nd then afterwards I'll do TaskRabbit once in a while just for extra money, instead of depending on it like a second job."
Shaun doesn't think of himself as a entrepreneur. "I think of myself as a hustler," he said. "Basically, right now I'm just money-motivated. I have the attitude where I am basically doing things that I don't think I can do to get by. So there are times when I would look at a job, and someone might say, 'You're sure you can handle it?' And I'm like, 'I don't know what I'm doing.'"
Unlike driving for Uber or working as a Kitchensurfing chef, Taskers can be hired for a variety of tasks. In some cases, Shaun has proven to be a quick study, such as when it came to building Ikea furniture. "The one thing that I've done that I kind of regret doing was [when] someone hired me to tune a door handle, one of those automatic door handles. And I went there thinking I know what's going on — until I looked at the door handle," he said. "It took me like a good thirty minutes to figure it out, but not before the [door swung out and the] glass hit the desk. They gave me a negative review, saying, 'I don't think he knows what he's doing.'"
Shaun has since sworn off fixing automatic doors. And after getting injured on a TaskRabbit gig, he's also stopped accepting moving tasks. "I helped lift a dresser. Had to pull [it] up a flight of stairs. It was two dressers, and even though I had assistance, I'm carrying stuff that weighs about 125, and my current abilities can only allow me to carry 50 pounds. So yeah, I stretched my back, and I just walked out of there saying, 'I'm okay.' But when I'm out, I'm like, 'Ouch.' My mind thinks I'm twenty-five, but my body is way older," he said with a chuckle. "And I keep telling myself, 'Yeah, let me just lose a couple of pounds, let me just lose the stomach or at least get my flexibility back before doing things like that again.'"
The stories from these twentysomething and thirtysomething workers underline the volatility of working in the twenty-first-century gig economy. Taking jobs in what has been heralded as a futuristic utopia of choose-your-own-adventure employment with flexible schedules and unlimited earnings, these young workers have instead found themselves working long hours for little pay and less stability. The autonomy they expected — work when you want, doing what you want — has been usurped by the need to maintain algorithm-approved acceptance and response rates. Sarah and Shaun find themselves pressured to accept unpleasant tasks, constantly hustling, while every week Baran must earn more than four hundred dollars just to break even on his Uber rental. Rather than finding financial freedom, these workers find themselves on the losing side of an outsourcing equation where they are responsible for platform "service fees" and encounter workplace expenses usually financed by employers. The promise of modern-day, app-driven entrepreneurship has yielded the bleak employment and living conditions of the early industrial age.
THE SHARING ECONOMY IS A MOVEMENT FORWARD TO THE PAST
Welcome to the sharing economy, a nebulous collection of online platforms and apps that promise to transcend capitalism in favor of community. Supporters argue that this new economic movement, alternatively described as the on-demand, platform, or gig economy, will build community, reverse economic inequality, stop ecological destruction, counter materialistic tendencies, enhance worker rights, empower the poor, and bring entrepreneurship to the masses. The sharing economy promises both an idyllic, boss-free future, where workers control their incomes and hours, and to be a cure-all for the woes of modern society.
Yet for all of its app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles the early industrial age, where workers worked long hours in a piecemeal system, workplace safety was nonexistent, and there were few options for redress. Despite its focus on emerging technology — apps, smartphones, contactless payment systems and review systems — the sharing economy is truly a movement forward to the past. Workers find themselves outside even the most basic workplace protections regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, the right to unionize, and even the right to redress for workplace injuries. The sharing economy is upending generations of workplace protections in the name of disruption and returning to a time when worker exploitation was the norm.
This book explores contradictions between the lofty promises of the gig economy and the lived experience of the workers, between app-enabled modernity and the reality of rolling back generations of workplace protections.
The sharing economy promises flexibility and work-life balance, but while Baran works only four days a week, those days are twelve-hour shifts. Sarah and Shaun are free from reporting to a single employer, but the gig economy increasingly tethers them to work: they're constantly on call, hustling to make money. Thanks to service algorithms, the decision to work isn't always in their hands. The gig economy offers "flexibility," but if they spend too much time away from the platform, they may discover they've been "removed from the community," or "deactivated."
When it comes to the sharing economy's promise to bring entrepreneurship to the masses, their careers diverge even more. Sarah doesn't think of herself as an entrepreneur, but TaskRabbit tells her she is, and that the service is "incentivizing" her entrepreneurship through its commission structure. Yet successful Airbnb entrepreneurs (discussed further in chapter 7) are described by the platform as "bad actors" who are using the service to run de facto hotels, instead of just making extra money on the side. And Shaun? He's just hustling.
Much like fledgling entrepreneurs, gig economy workers find that getting work often requires doing unpaid work. Workers must maintain profiles and respond to emails from prospective clients or even just keep clicking "refresh" on their app — all of which is unpaid work. Sarah and Shaun are not always being paid to work, but they are always working. And Baran is "spending money to make money," but his ability to make money is dictated by Uber's policies and algorithms. Such contradictions lie at the center of the sharing economy. And yet, questioning these contradictions is not merely an academic exercise but one that has real implications for millions of people.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a quarter of American adults had earned money in the "platform economy" over the last year. Economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger found that online services such as Uber and TaskRabbit accounted for .5 percent of all workers in 2015 — an impressive level of growth for a five-year-old industry.
Yet for all its growth, little is known about the actual, lived experience of working in the gig economy. Who are these workers? Why are they willing to work without hard-earned workplace protections? Are they entrepreneurs or idealistic "sharers," or is this simply "unemployment lite"? Why are they investing their time and personal financial resources in work that is entirely out of their hands? What types of challenges and dangers — emotional, physical, or financial — do they experience? What does this mean for the future of work? And what does this mean for our society?
My book is the first — and perhaps still the only one — to build on firsthand accounts from nearly eighty workers and to place their stories in the context of larger social structures and trends in American society. It's also the only one to focus on four very different services — Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kitchensurfing — that illustrate the larger issues of skill and capital in the gig economy. (It's highly illustrative that two of those services are doing better than ever, one is trying to establish a clear identity, and one is already defunct.)
Many of the sharing economy books written to date have been by journalists or business school professors. Most serve as cheerleaders — the trend is great, the problems are minor, and so on. But as a sociologist, I take a more critical perspective. My book acknowledges the potential of the sharing economy and examines the challenges for workers. Instead of just telling readers about the sharing economy, I raise important questions about this new economic movement. My goal is to leave you reexamining some of what you've read previously. For instance, if this is a great opportunity for people to own their own businesses, why are workers embarrassed to work in the gig economy? What does it say about this type of work that workers lie to family and friends rather than admit that they drive for Uber or clean homes via TaskRabbit? If this is the so-called sharing economy, why does everything have a price?
As a sociologist, I examine the larger social forces that lead workers to take on gig work or turn to multiple jobs to make ends meet. I link trends in outsourcing, wage stagnation, income volatility, and mass layoffs to the rise of this "alternative" work. I focus on the stories of the workers in order to put the sharing economy in the context of larger trends related to income inequality and American labor struggles over the past two hundred years. This historical connection demonstrates that while the underlying notion of a "gig economy" is fundamentally forward-facing — new tools, new capabilities, and new ventures — most of its basic practices are distressingly familiar. It's an exercise in regression, returning workers to an era of rampant exploitation. It may be app-enabled, but this so-called disruption is definitely not leading to anything new.
FROM SHARING TO EARNING
From the beginning of the Great Depression and until the early 1970s, the trend in income distribution in the United States was toward greater equality, with the percentage of national income held by the wealthiest 1 percent of families dropping by more than half. But by the mid-1970s, that trend began to reverse. From 1993 to 2010, for the bottom 99 percent of the income distribution, the real growth rate in income was 6.4 percent, while the top 1 percent experienced a real growth rate of 58 percent. More than half of all real income growth in the economy went to families at the very top of the income distribution, a reversal described by Paul Krugman as the "Great Divergence." But while worker wages stagnated, the pay received by top business executives has soared in the last twenty-five years. "In 1979 the ratio of the pay received by the average CEO in total direct compensation to that of the average production worker was 37.2:1. By 2007 (the year before the recession) it had grown to 277:1."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hustle and Gig"
Copyright © 2019 Alexandrea J. Ravenelle.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Strugglers, Strivers, and Success Stories
2. What Is the Sharing Economy?
3. Forward to the Past and the Early Industrial Age
4. Workplace Troubles
5. Sharing Is Caring
6. All in a Day’s (Dirty) Work
7. Living the Dream?
Appendix 1. Demographic Survey
Appendix 2. Interview Matrix