I’ve been a freelancer for the last ten years. Freelancing, as those who do it know, is not always the most enjoyable of professions. Outsiders see things like a flexible schedule, the ability to travel, the ability to decide how much work you do and when, and assume it’s an easy, fun way to make a living. Insiders know that freelancing is a continuous hustle, a struggle to make yourself known, to land commissions, to find work that will lead to more work. Especially in my particular corner of journalism, where social responsibility and ethical behaviour are part of my work, freelancing is even more loaded as I turn down jobs in the interest of promoting other voices, or shrink from the limelight because I don’t want to take up space.
Writers have been freelancing for a very long time, and discussing the social and economic implications of it for just as long. Thanks to the economic collapse, more and more people are turning to freelancing as a way of life, and what they’re discovering is shocking and disturbing for them. Even as those in power are pitching freelancing and the so-called ‘sharing economy’ as the new economic order and a symbol of freedom, flexibility, creativity, and resourcefulness, what it looks like from the ground is a constant hustle and a struggle to stay alive.
Examining the sharing economy after a Wired feature in April, Kevin Roose noted that there was a strong connection between the loss of jobs and the rise of the sharing economy — and that when you actually run the numbers, people who are participating in services like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and so forth aren’t actually making nearly as much as entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley execs want you to think. What’s driving the economy isn’t resourcefulness or trust, Roose argues, but money, and a desperate need to make enough of it to pay the bills and function.
The sharing economy has become a larger component of the largely unregulated shadow economy, a world which is hard to track, difficult to understand for outsiders, and impossible to get ahead in. We live in an era when the middle class is being effectively gutted, when people are either poor and scrabbling to make a living, or wealthy and comfortable — typically on the backs of these very same poor people. There’s a reason taxi drivers and small hotels are protesting the rise of such services (as are, of course, corporations in both industries): they undercut prices and create an unregulated market, but also, they exploit people.
While those in opposition to services like Uber and Lyft might not be focused on the exploitation because they’re more worried about the implications for industry, this should be a larger concern, because it’s legitimate, and it’s growing. We are living in a world where people increasingly make their living through piecework, with highly unstable and unpredictable means, which is no way to function in the long term. When people are barely scraping up enough to survive month to month, they aren’t saving, which leaves them vulnerable in the event of an economic disaster — like not getting enough work, or having a sudden major expense.
It also doesn’t allow them to contribute to the economy in the long term, and to build more stable lives. People who aren’t saving can’t afford to buy homes, send their kids to college, buy cars, and prepare for retirement. Instead, there’s a limited focus on getting through the month — and as a freelancer, I know this experience acutely, because it’s one that I’m living right now. When you are trapped in the economics of the moment, you cannot think about the economics of the future, and even if you’re conscious that this is ruinous in the long term, you don’t have time to contemplate a solution, or to take action.
Entrepreneurs at the head of the ‘sharing economy’ are profiting from the workers they exploit at low wages, and sometimes no wages. Even as people flood publishing, the tech industry, and more in search of free internships to pad their resumes and buy a lottery ticket for the thin hope of making it, exploited workers are taking on work piece by piece, bit by bit, thinking in terms of the next commission, the next ticket, the next ride, the next booking.
This is no way to make a living. It’s not just that it’s undignified and economically precarious. It’s also highly stressful, with serious potential health implications for people trapped in the hamster wheel of the constant hustle. The stress keeps driving you harder and harder even as you recognise that you urgently need rest, and even as you’re trying to build a life for yourself, your body is breaking down around you in protest over its treatment. The fact that society collectively tolerates and even encourages this kind of working and compensation structure is absurd, and it’s all the more troubling in the context of how much money is being made at the very top in comparison with those of us at the very bottom.
Is this the life we want for our workers? For ourselves? For our society? Because the hustling economy has serious long-term implications that no one seems willing to address in a world where people are too busy praising tech startups for being ‘innovative’ about the next latest hustle, the next big thing, the next thing we can ‘share’ to earn a few pennies.
Image: LYFT, Alfredo Mendez, Flickr