Uber and the future of work

The New York Times has an interesting piece exploring the impact of Uber’s business model on work and employment in the future:

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.

“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 Turk economy, 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.

The on-demand economy Manjoo outlines sounds hellish.

This quote in particular resonated with me:

“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.”

Rather than allowing jobs in the twenty first century to become casualised and atomised, I think we would do well to aim for decent, well paying jobs.

One road block to this atomization of labour is labour-protection laws in the United States. The Verge is reporting that there are a couple of class-action law suits in the United States at the moment against Uber and Lyft. The class-action suits are trying to argue that the people who drive around for these companies are actually employees, which matters because employees get access to a range of benefits (such as petrol expenses) which Uber and Lyft drivers don’t currently have. It will be interesting to see what happens with these cases!

The Gospel of Consumerism


I was reading this interesting article called ‘The Gospel of Consumption‘ by Jeffrey Kaplan and it raised a number of interesting points. In developed countries over the twentieth century, productivity and real wages have grown a huge amount. People’s work creates more value per hour, and hence they are usually paid more. Kaplan writes that in the United States, 2005 per capita household income was twelve times what it had been in 1929. If we were to go back to the standard of living that people in 1948 enjoyed, we would only have to work 2.7 hours per day.

The article raises the interesting question of whether we wouldn’t all be better off if we didn’t work so hard and enjoyed more leisure time. Instead of chasing after the next generation of TV or a fancier car or a new cellphone one could relax and read a book or spend some time with your family or something. Kaplan talks about an interesting and hugely popular pilot scheme that Kellogg (the cereal guy) ran in his factories where all his workers shifted to six hour days (30 hour weeks). It meant less pay for workers, but substituted the “mental income” of more leisure time instead. There was also the added bonus of more employment to go around. The workers loved it – it meant more time to spend with their family or gardening or playing ping pong.

Imagine if as a society we decided to work less – we would certainly have to endure a drop in income, but would we be any less happy? I know for a lot of people who are struggling in poverty cutting back on hours is impractical, but for the majority of rich westerners it’s an interesting question.

Most of us equate happiness with the number of material possessions we have – we’ve got into this cycle of consumerism where we can never have enough. After a certain point, we just need to recognise that we’ve got enough material stuff, work less hours, enjoy more leisure time and ultimately be happier.

Image credit: mark sebastian (Creative Commons BY-SA)