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How Uber may change the way you work


As Uber has grown into one of the world’s most valuable start-ups, its ambitions seem un-limited

Of all the ways that Uber could change the world, the most far-reaching could

be closest at hand; your office.

Uber and the app-driven labour market it represents, is at the centre of what could be a

sea-change in work, and about how people think about their jobs. You may not intend

becoming an Uber driver yourself, but the Uberization of work, could be coming your way soon.

uber1                 Just as Uber is doing for taxis, new technologies have the potential to chop up a broad

array of traditional jobs into discrete tasks that can be assigned to people just when

they’re  needed, with wages set by a dynamic measurement of supply and demand, and

every worker’s performance constantly tracked, reviewed and subject to the sometimes

harsh light of customer satisfaction.

Uber and its ride-sharing competitors, including

Lyft and Sidecar, are the boldest examples of this breed, which many in the tech

industry see as a new kind of start-up — one whose primary mission is to efficiently

allocate human beings and their possessions, rather than information.

Various companies are now trying to emulate Uber’s business model in other fields,

from daily chores, like shopping and laundry, to more upmarket stuff; legal services and

medecine.

“I do think we are defining a new category of work that isn’t full-time employment, but is

not running your own business either,” says Arun Sundarajan, a professor at New

York University’s Business School, who has studied the rise of the so-called on-demand

economy and who is mainly optimistic about its prospects.

Uberization will have its benefits: Technology could make your work life more flexible,

allowing you to fit your job, or perhaps multiple jobs, around your schedule, rather

than vice versa. Even during a time of renewed job growth, Americans’ wages are

      stubbornly stagnant, and the on-demand economy may provide novel streams of income.

“We may end up with a future in which a fraction of the work force would do a portfolio

of things to generate an income — you could be an Uber driver, an Instacart shopper, an

Airbnb host and a Taskrabbit,” Dr. Sundararajan said.

But the rise of such work could also make your income less predictable and your

long-term employment less secure. And it may relegate the idea of establishing a lifelong

career to a distant memory.

“I think it’s nonsense, utter nonsense,” said Robert B. Reich, an economist at the

University of California, Berkeley who was the secretary of labor during the Clinton

administration. “This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable,

doesn’t pay very well and is terribly insecure.” After interviewing many workers in the

on-demand world, Dr. Reich said he has concluded that “most would much rather have

good, well-paying, regular jobs.”

It is true that many of these start-ups are creating new opportunities for employment,

which is a novel trend in tech, especially during an era in which we’re all fretting about

robots stealing our jobs. Proponents of on-demand work point out that many of the tech

giants that sprang up over the last decade minted billions in profits without hiring very

many people; Facebook, for instance, serves more than a billion users, but employs only

a few thousand highly skilled workers, most of them in California.

To make the case that it is creating lots of new jobs, Uber recently provided some of its

data on ridership to Alan B. Krueger, an economist at Princeton and a former chairman

of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Krueger’s

report — which he said he was allowed to produce without interference from Uber —

paints Uber as a force for good in the labour market.

Dr. Krueger found that at the end of 2014, Uber had 160,000 drivers regularly working

for it in the United States. About 40,000 new drivers signed up in December alone, and

the number of sign-ups was doubling every six months.

The report found that on average, Uber’s drivers worked fewer hours and earned more

per hour than traditional taxi drivers, even when you account for their expenses. That

conclusion, though, has raised fierce debate among economists, because it’s not clear

how much Uber drivers really are paying in expenses. Drivers on the service use their

own cars and pay for their gas; taxi drivers generally do not.

The key perk of an Uber job is flexibility. In most of Uber’s largest markets, a majority of

its drivers work from one to 15 hours a week, while many traditional taxi drivers work

full time. A survey of Uber drivers contained in the report found that most were already

employed full or part time when they found Uber, and that earning an additional income

on the side was a primary benefit of driving for Uber.

Dr. Krueger pointed out that Uber’s growth was disconnected to improvements in the

broader labour market. “As the economy got stronger, Uber’s rate of growth increased,” he said. “So far, it’s not showing signs of limitations in terms of attracting enough drivers.”

One criticism of Uber-like jobs is that because drivers aren’t technically employees, but

are, instead independent contractors of Uber, they don’t enjoy the security and benefits

of traditional jobs. The complication, here, though, is that most taxi drivers are also

independent contractors, so the arrangement isn’t particularly novel in the ride

business. And as on-demand jobs become more prevalent, guildlike professional groups

are forming to provide benefits and support for workers.

The larger worry about on-demand jobs is not about benefits, but about a lack of agency

— a future in which computers, rather than humans, determine what you do, when and

for how much. The rise of Uber-like jobs is the logical culmination of an economic and

tech system that holds efficiency as its paramount virtue.

“These services are successful because they are tapping into people’s available time

more efficiently,” Dr. Sundararajan said. “You could say that people are monetizing their

own downtime.”

Think about that for a second; isn’t “monetizing downtime” a hellish vision of the future

of work?

“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be

understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr. Reich said. “Can you

imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turkeconomy, where everyone is doing

piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how

much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of

relationships, what kind of families?”

The on-demand economy may be better than the alternative of software automating all

our work. But that isn’t necessarily much of a cause for celebration.

 

 

 

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