Sarah Kessler, author of “Gigged: The end of the job and the Future of Work,” appeared on PBS’ NewsHour this weekend. She offered some interesting and cautionary words about the future of work that contrast and reinforce ideas expressed by Louis Hyman in The New York Times on Saturday in a piece, “It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs.”
Kessler told NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan: “…what I found is that there is a world in which like this story that startups pitch about this being like wonderful and independent and all you need. It really exists but it exists for people who have skills like programming computers versus some of the people who I followed who were trying to make ends meet on the lower end of things.”
The hyping of gig work is relentless. Yes, it can work. Yes, it is hard to make ends meet, but there is not sufficient connectivity to work, yet, to deliver on the promise of flexibility because too often gig workers are left hustling for low-pay alternatives to a good job.
What’s missing? Benefits and a commitment to shared prosperity, as well as greater scale to enable one person to conveniently move between earning from the skills they possess. We must organize our society so that people can thrive. That’s on all of us, employers and workers, to debate and codify, whether in contracts, regulations, or both.
Louis Hyman’s opinion article in the Times provides an apt answer: “The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.”
Platform marketplaces, such as Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and others, have focused on their success relentlessly, forgetting about their workers’ prosperity and, in some cases, the worker’s humanity. This is why we need clearly articulate laws about the relationship between company and worker, regardless of the form that relationship takes. Kessler’s comment, that “there’s really no clear definition of what makes and employer or what makes an independent contractor” is emblematic of the ongoing evolution of work.
Hyman’s take is that we’re mistaking governance for technology, allowing startups to dominate the economic and legal debate because we are distracted by technology:
Internet technologies have certainly intensified this development (even though most freelancers remain offline). But services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it. Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. Uber is a symptom, not a cause.
He’s suggesting, if I may interpret him broadly, that we are being gaslighted into thinking that technology is changing our lives while the real culprits get away with outlandish profits by defining unfair work relationships. And he is correct to the degree that contractual terms are changing labor power, but he is wrong that Uber is a symptom and not a cause. Uber is an organization that found an efficient way to drive more temporary work by implementing technology with built-in unfairness.
First-movers always set the new terms of a business in a nascent industry, yet they are almost always superceded by organizations that bring both quality or efficiency to market along with fairness for the consumer, worker, and society in which they operate.
Most analysts focus on the pace of technological change, but now we are at the cusp of a massive socioeconomic change based on the potential for completely new ways to organize using technology. Hyman is correct that it is corporate leadership and political pressure that actually shapes economic fairness. The overwhelming force that will change work is visible in the sometimes wild-sounding speculation by crypto-currency promoters and blockchain experimenters, who have some of the answers.
Everyone needs to look past the technology to the people, who are our fellow humans and citizens, as well as the customers we count on to drive economic activity that supports business. They come before the business, and the businesses that become indispensible to people will thrive whatever we call these new work relationships.