The Next Iteration of the New Economy: Instant Workers

In the Bay Area, if I want food fast and it’s daylight hours, I can grab my phone, open my SpoonRocket app, and have food delivered to my door within minutes by a worker who drives around town, hovering, waiting for orders. I choose between a limited number of menu items, but the tradeoff is that it gets to me quickly, which is sometimes all that matters when I’m crashing. That driver is part of the next iteration of the hustling economy: The instant worker.

We live in a world where the ‘sharing’ economy is by turns vaunted as a brilliant economic scheme (for those who profit from it, maybe) and torn down as a horrific abuse of workers. It’s spread from services offline to online, neatly mimicked in the digital era, where piecework has become the name of the game for workers who can’t get steady jobs as people actually on payroll with benefits anymore. The United States is a nation of freelancers, hustlers, and others desperate to get their next buck, completing piecework jobs that pay almost nothing and stringing them together in a vain attempt to survive — which can be a real challenge in places like San Francisco, where rents are stratospheric thanks to the invasion of the techies.

It’s an economy where employers are no longer required to provide benefits to their staff members, cutting their overhead dramatically as they drop health insurance, pensions, and other offers that they’d normally have to provide to be competitive. They don’t even need to cover payroll tax, because no one is on payroll, and they aren’t required to pay workers’ comp or maintain other legally required liability insurance. (Try finding, if you dare, a service offering landscaping, cleaning, childcare, or other basic services where workers receive a fair wage and benefits, are employed as actual employees, and are fully bonded and insured. Go on. I’ll wait.)

The instant worker, though, is a different kettle of fish entirely.

…it can be too easy to forget that people make “instant” happen. And, generally, these people are not a traditionally stable workforce. They are instead a flexible and scalable network of workers — “fractional employees” — that tap in and tap out as needed, and as suits them…It’s estimated that more than 100,000 of these jobs have been created.

That sounds like a lot of jobs, but what people seem reluctant to acknowledge is that these jobs are part of the precariat. They represent people who often cannot make a living in other ways — in some cases, they are even people with professional experience and skills who cannot find work in their chosen professions. Some are among the many people in the US who have given up on finding stable employment, turning to hustling work as a way to bring in some income, because something is better than nothing.

These jobs are often glamourised in profiles; they’re flexible, allowing people to set their own hours and pay. They provide numerous opportunities for people who don’t want to lead conventional lives or be tied to an office and traditional norms. They offer a chance for people to make money doing something they already do, or love doing — why not rent your house if you’re already going to be gone? Why not swap houses with people on holiday, rather than using a hotel?

What’s left out of these profiles is that these jobs offer terrible pay, and they’re horribly unreliable, which leaves workers constantly scrambling. They can’t afford to take days off, they constantly need to be zooming off to their next gig, and they always need to focus on new opportunities. They’re also competing for limited slots. In a broken economy, even crappy jobs are highly competitive, and for every person who finds this kind of work too frustrating, there are ten more clamouring to take her place.

But it’s not all shiny happy job creation. It’s not terribly uplifting to think that the future of labor is delivering stuff to rich people,’ Liz Gannes points out in her profile of instant workers, and she’s right. Because this isn’t just about the precariat, and it’s not just about people struggling to make a living in a terrible economy, and it’s not just about the dangerous economic precedents being set here. 

It’s also about the fact that this is fundamentally an economy that’s arising to serve the needs of rich and upper middle class people who want it now, as Veruca Salt would say. And it’s a reminder that we haven’t come very far from a history in which there were two groups of people: The rich, and those who lived to serve them. While we no longer live downstairs or on fiefs, we serve the same role that our historical counterparts did, catering to the every whim of a powerful upper class that sees us as a largely invisible source of pleasures and gratification.

This growing financial trend is becoming a juggernaut, and it’s one the government seems ill-equipped to address and regulate. And why should it? It doesn’t care, so long as taxes are paid, believing that the free hand of the market will fix anything wrong — for the only economic problems the government is worried about are those concerning the banks and other wealthy powerhouses. While funds can be mustered to bail out big banks, apparently it’s not possible to address the growing hustler economy and its implications for young, lower-class people in the United States.

Image: Tired yet Restless, Colton Witt, Flickr