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The Digital Gig Economy Can Help A Lot Of People. It Can Also Feel Like A Trap

'We’re ending up with these two tiers of workers — the individuals who are working on demand and the people who are doing the demanding'

By Faith Cummings

Between college, internships, part-time jobs, student loans, and, y’know, actually joining the workforce where people expect you to have experience in order to land an entry-level role, it can feel like the factors standing between many young people and their dream jobs are all but insurmountable. And seeming inevitabilities like budget cuts and poor healthcare benefits have led many young people to set up “layoff funds,” live with their parents for longer, and seemingly put their lives on hold before they even begin.

These are just some of the stressors leading so many millennials into the freelance game. A 2017 measure by Upwork and the Freelancers Union reported that almost half of millennials are completing contract work. Platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit, and countless others have also given rise to a digitized gig economy, wherein freelancers and full-time employees alike can make extra cash in their side-hours with the simple tap of an app.

But all iterations of labor come with a price, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the benefits people reap from the accessibility of these platforms are adding up to a hefty price for those who do the lion’s share of the work to keep them running.

In Hustle and Gig, sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle dives deep into the gig economy and how it’s affecting those who work in it and society as a whole. For the book, which hit bookshelves March 12, she interviewed 80 workers about their triumphs, losses, frustrations, and everything in-between for one of the most eye-opening looks into an ever-growing sector of the economy that so many consumers now take for granted.

Ravenelle spoke with MTV News about the unseen dangers of the gig economy, why it can feel inescapable to those who pick up work through app-enabled gigs, and what that means for young people trying to make both a living and a life in 2019.

MTV News: Both the gig economy and freelance work are becoming more prevalent for millennials, and will most likely be the same or even bigger for generation Z to follow. Why did you embark on putting the book together, and by compiling all these stories?

Alexandrea Ravenelle: My last real job was right before the Great Recession started [in 2008]. I was working in PR and then I got laid off, so I was then going to do some consulting work on my own. I was already doing some part-time adjunct teaching so I thought, “Oh I could make a career of this.” I thought it would be fine, but it was getting overwhelming — it was a lot of work and a lot of administrative stuff. We would hire workers off of Craigslist and I had some questionable situations. And then I saw a subway ad for TaskRabbit and I thought, it was an entrepreneur like myself hiring other entrepreneurs. And then I started talking to one of the TaskRabbits that I had — we had been working together for a while — and what he told me … made me realize there’s something else going on in the gig economy besides entrepreneurship and everyone having the chance to be their own boss.

MTV News: I’ve heard more terrifying stories from people who’ve used services like TaskRabbit and Uber, but you rarely hear about the circumstances from the people who take jobs in the gig economy. What was your reaction to learning about these stories?

AR: I was blown away. I did not expect to hear these stories at all. Everyone is always nervous. When people use Uber, they think, “Has the driver been background checked?” There was a story that came out this week about someone who was sentenced for raping an unconscious passenger. But at least when you’re the client, you know the person providing you a service has had a background check. They’ve been fingerprinted. Their photograph has been taken. If you’re the driver, you know nothing about the passenger and there’s no protection which is protecting you from that passenger. It’s the same thing with TaskRabbit, which provides all these tasks and services and these workers know nothing about who they’re working for. It’s very easy to set up fake accounts. You don’t even need to get to the point of a burner phone. You can have multiple accounts and you can use gift cards.

The workers end up being very vulnerable. There were some things workers were exposed to that I didn’t expect to happen. Workers who said they were invited to participate in threesomes. There’s an unbelievable level of risk — financial, physical, sexual. And yet they just keep working because many feel like they don’t have any choice. [Editor’s note: MTV News reached out to both Uber and TaskRabbit for comment on their contractor safety policies.]  

MTV News: This feels so pertinent now when you think about how other generations have vilified millennials as being “lazy and entitled.” There’s this idea that we don’t want to work and that we have these very grandiose thoughts about our careers, which is why we’re going into entrepreneurship. But there’s also the contrasting reality that so many of us are being laid off from our jobs. What would you say to people who perhaps aren’t understanding the gravity of this?

AR: The majority of the people I interview in the book are millennials and that’s because we know millennials often graduated college right when the Great Recession was ongoing and soon after. So, they’ve been hit with high levels of unemployment, high levels of student loans, and high levels of credit card debt. But the crisis affected everyone. In the latest Federal Reserve Study of Economic Decision Making (SHED) for young people ages 18 – 29, gig work was the most common source of income. The SHED survey says that about three in 10 Americans are actually making money in the gig economy. Not all of that is platform-based like Uber or TaskRabbit. Some of it might be babysitting or mowing the lawn for an extra $20 or $50. But we’re seeing a huge movement of people who aren’t making enough in their full-time jobs or who don’t have a sufficient, full-time job, so they need to supplement their salary because the cost of living is rising and everyone has debt, so this becomes the only option.

MTV News: What do you think is the root cause of the gig economy?

AR: The period of prosperity that we had after World War II was short-lived in society. We saw a decrease in inequality and an increase in equality, but we had a number of problems. We didn’t have full equality and rights for women and ethnic and racial minorities. But we saw that there were beginnings for more of an equal society economically. But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, we started to see this rise of neoliberalism. We started to see more of the message that people need to take responsibility for themselves and that people need to work hard. We saw an outsourcing of jobs to the point that for many millennials, they probably saw their parents being laid off at least once or maybe more than that.

We’re seeing a kind of return to an early industrial age, when we had the robber barons who are making a lot of money and then we have everyone else. [Now,] we’re ending up with these two tiers of workers — the individuals who are working on demand and the people who are doing the demanding. We’re seeing the gig economy as a move forward to the past. It’s app-enabled, but this disruption is nothing new. Because it’s technology-driven, no one would assume that these industries could still be antiquated in such a fundamental way.

I think part of the problem is because these companies describe themselves as technology companies, which gives you sort of this imprinter of being mystical, different, and cutting-edge. The argument is, “We need to be able to shed workers, move quickly, and disrupt." As a result, people don’t question it the same way.

MTV News: Some people who are a part of the gig economy may not have other means to make money. What are your thoughts on the necessity of finding gig work, when balanced with the inequities in the space?

AR: The gig economy is fulfilling a real need in society. Salaries are stagnant and people often turn to gig work after they’ve been unemployed for a long period of time or when they feel like they don’t have any other choices. In the book, I divide the workers into three categories: Strugglers, Strivers, and Success Stories. And of course, the Success Stories are able to have Airbnb empires, they’re able to hire people, and they make six figures. There aren’t a lot of them and most of what they’re doing is illegal, but they’re able to be successful. There are the Strivers that need to supplement their stagnant salaries. And there are the Strugglers who are sometimes undocumented or long-term unemployed. In many cases, they are older individuals, or they’re recent college grads who don’t have any other options. The gig economy fills a need, and regulation is not the answer to everything, but we do need some regulation to ensure workers are being protected and to make sure people are not being exploited. In this work, you are very much outside all of those workplace protections.

The only other thing I would say about workers turning to these jobs out of desperation is that they do run the risk of getting stuck in the gig economy. There are individuals I interviewed back in 2015 who I’m following up with now and they’re still working in the gig economy. Part of it is that there’s an addictive component to it. We know that our phones are addictive, so add in the possibility of making money. It also becomes hard to get out of it, after you’ve been working in the gig economy for a while.

And many workers experience a sense of shame about what they do. Even if you did have friends that were doing this, they might lie to you about it. One woman I interviewed does lie to her friends. She tells them she’s temping at a law firm instead of cleaning someone’s house through TaskRabbit because there’s something about working on these platforms that feels embarrassing to people.

MTV News: What do you think is going to happen with the gig economy over the next five to ten years?

AR: The gig economy is going to continue to grow. I don’t see our society becoming much more focused on equality; historically we haven’t really been there. Right now, a lot of these gig economy companies are relying on venture capital money. They use the venture capital for both client and worker acquisition, so they’re subsidizing a lot of the rides and, at least in the beginning, they’re paying workers’ bonuses, getting them on the platform, and then they’re burning money very quickly. I think what we’ll see is fewer platforms, but those platforms will become much more powerful. So, if you aren’t on a certain platform, it might be nearly impossible for you to get any part-time work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.