Decade in Review: The Uber Economy? Hang a Shingle.

By Michelle Railey

April 2014

So, there’s that moment when somebody is splitting her screen time between Mechanical Turk, taking surveys, posting things on eBay, and building the online magazine when somebody realizes it’s colonial times all over again.

Hang a shingle: pianos repaired here. Homemade Taffy. Hand-dipped candles. Uber.

The economy might be all bangin’ 21st-century and globally integrated, but your kid’s first-grade teacher is working for Instacart in her free time. Automated cars are about to displace every trucker you ever saw, knew, or met. And, when there are no raises, well, the Internets are rife with surveys and minuscule tasks; with grocery orders to be placed into Fiestas and Civics; with Fiverrs and Mechanical Turks, Instacarts, Ubers, Lyfts, and Air BnBs. Oh my.

On one hand, there has maybe never been such a wealth of ways to make an extra thirty cents.

On the other hand, thirty cents in twenty minutes doesn’t feel so good, not even if one reminds oneself how pride goeth before a fall and not being too proud is a good thing.

Well, it starts to feel a little crazy: somewhere between Mechanical Turk and eBay and day job. And then between paid surveys on Swagbucks, iPoll, and InboxDollars. Eventually somebody asks: Just what the hell is this universe?

(Somebody will take a break: to decipher more zip codes on Mechanical Turk, to answer questions about her medical care and paper towel preferences via survey, to double-check the shipping code on a tutu or a dance skirt or a bit of this, a bit of that…it’s all for sale.)

It’s the twenty-first century. Star Trek (Next Gen) promised us food at the touch of a button and unitards for all. Sure, great things are possible— but in order to afford them, we’re all hanging shingles, trading treasures and time in tiny increments. I will gladly trade you a ride to the airport tomorrow for a hamburger today.

For those who have little security and have not had raises, there is so much promise in the Uber economy: a way to freedom, a way to pursue dreams, and in spare moments, raise the cash to survive. Drive a little, Mechanical Turk a little, is that item worth money on eBay a little.

There is hope and freedom in that. Even if one has to trade a bit of privacy and answer strange questions on surveys (40 cents per plus a spin on the Dollar Wheel on Inbox Dollars).

The somebody (maybe you, maybe me) is grateful. They think of gratitude (ruefully) when they open the Shopkick app as they stop for dinner at the grocery store (Hang a shingle. Collect some points. It will eventually turn into a gift card which will turn into cat litter and coffee and paper towels. For basically free, minus privacy and seconds into minutes into hours.)

Isn’t that the darndest?

The surveys, the penny jobs, the gig economy: it’s easy to love the freedom.

The surveys, the penny jobs, the gig economy: is hanging a shingle for pennies and freedom smart or is it the beginning of tech-age indentured servitude? Is freedom and untethered employment status worth the loss of security, of pensions or PTO, or benefits? How many hours of overtime at the day job can be substituted for work online at home, comfortably, for cents per minute?

Is this penny smart but pound foolish? Is this hopeful? Is this flexible? What is this Strange New World?

The news programs like American Public Media Marketplace say that it can’t be called the Gig Economy anymore, that it should just be called the Uber economy.

If it were me, I would call it the conundrum economy or the Janus economy or the chimera economy.

Is the glass half-full? Half-empty? Is the glass just glass? Or is it digital, virtual, transcribed for pennies but transcribed in freedom?

Buckle up, kids. The next forty years promise to see a shaking-up of the working world that makes globalization look like a very minor change in management.

And with that, please excuse me, I have receipts to enter on Mechanical Turk. I’m almost up to 60 cents and I’d hate to lose out on that.

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