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Back to the Future 4: The Sharing Economy

by | Jul 6, 2016 | Daily Life

If Marty McFly saw what is called the “Sharing Economy” he would immediately realize it’s neither new, nor real.

Let’s take a very quick stroll through our country’s employment history like our fictional time traveler would, had he been so inclined.

 

1700s-1800s

People were predominately craftsman and farmers, tending to their own land and their own needs and selling or trading excess goods and services to others within their little towns. Individuals had specialized skills that could be called upon as needed, such as a cobbler fixing boots of weary farmers. Sure there were some companies, with labor forces and distribution, but that was the exception to the rule…average people were at most,  the modern day sole-proprietor.

1800s-1900s

As technology grew, primarily in the form of steam engines, trains, electricity and the telegraph, the economy changed along with it. More and more collectives and then companies formed, consolidating the means of labor into a workforce, and turning self-sufficient people into employees. Factories boomed, cities grew large, financial instruments were created to fuel more and more expansion and generate profits for those willing to take a risk. Millions of immigrants flocked to the New World for an opportunity of a better life.

Late 1900s-Present

For about 100 years that economic system worked through a combination of wages and benefits provided by employers and a safety net provided by the government in the form of labor laws, Social Security, and Medicare. But sweeping advances in technology, a globalization of workforces, economic inequality, and financial collapses brought upon by short-sightedness and greed, have rendered that economy unsustainable.

We are now in what I call the “Age of Displacement” which to our fictional time traveling friend would look like a 21st Century version of the 18th Century, albeit with cooler gadgets.

The Sharing Economy Misnomer

Sure there are a few companies like Air BnB which are built around people making money off of “sharing” things like their apartments and houses…but the vast majority of what is being dubbed the Sharing Economy is actually people cobbling together multiple low paying jobs to stamp out an existence.

Uber was called a ride sharing app..but let’s be real..it is a tool enabling passengers to connect with private citizens acting as taxi drivers…end of story. The only sharing going on is the fee splitting the “taxi drivers” and Uber do on each fare. Sure Uber created the infrastructure to connect drivers and passengers and should be applauded for that…but to consider them some standard bearer of a brave new economy is laughable.

(Even more to this point are statements made by Uber executives about its development of a fleet of driverless cars…thus removing that key component to an economy…humans.)

Think back to our cobbler who makes and mends boots back in the days of old. He was providing an “as needed” service…and so are millions of workers today, but it’s not just craftwork and trade labor. Instead it is a plethora of what until recently were considered firmly middle-class, professional- and creative-skilled jobs, such as writing, photography, graphic design, audio and video production, accounting, bookkeeping, legal advice, among many others. These professions have become commoditized, and operate in the realm of victory to the lowest bidder.

Add in traditional services jobs like house cleaning, delivery driving, taxi driving, which were already at the low wage scale and never going higher, and what you have is a HUGE portion of our economy existing in what economists would call a “wage suppressed” state. And there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that this will change, in fact it is quite likely even more professions will join this group.

The Left Behind?

What can be said of all of these workers is that they are decidedly not sharing in the fruits of increased economic productivity or historically low unemployment rates. Rather they are being forced to post their skillset on sites like Fiverr, which is a marketplace for services sold $5 at a time. Or they do a little work for one company as a contractor in the morning, and then run off to another freelancer gig in the afternoon…maybe at night they get a little taste of employee life as a bartender or barista. All combined to yield an often closer to poverty-level than middle-class-level of income.

So what is next? Is this new existence ultimately for the better? Or are we heading down a path of even more severe and damaging displacement?

Well this isn’t a story about solutions…no today is about trying to properly define that which has been ill-defined up until now, and to get those who aren’t seeing what is really happening to open their eyes. No real discussion on solutions can be had if there are those out there who are only looking at this major shift through the prism of how it can benefit them.

As for figuring out how to make the situation better for those in the midst of being displaced that will take a lot more time and effort…perhaps if we had a Doc Brown at our disposal, we could have a quick fix, but until then we’ll have to figure it on our own.

Got some ideas?

Robert Westfall

Robert is a writer, behavorial researcher and decision-making consultant. He is the founder of Instinct, a firm specializing in helping organizations be more human focused and planet conscious.  You can learn more about his work at www.TheHumanInstinct.com and follow him at twitter.com/WeAreInstinct

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