Katherine Boyle is a venture capitalist at General Catalyst in San Francisco.
For roughly 2,300 years, Aristotle’s edict “We work in order that we may have leisure” has explained a lot of why humans do what they do. Philosophers in every age have upheld the virtue of work, providing that, at some point, we could kick back a little bit.
But Silicon Valley is busy fiddling with that ancient contract. Among technologists building our task-based gig economy, there have emerged two factions holding opposing theories of the future of work and what it means. In one, we each will need to have many jobs. In the other, we will not work at all. It’s unclear in which direction we’re headed.
The first group — the UBERians, let’s call them — believe the gig economy will give workers more money, more time and more flexibility. In a perfect UBERian world, we will all be gig workers, working for a variety of platforms, enjoying the benefits of life as independent contractors. As Uber and Lyft — the current victors of the gig economy — go public this year, it’s also clear that Silicon Valley’s grand experiment with gig employment is not so much freedom from labor but gamifying it so that workers will do more of it. The next time you climb into the Prius you just summoned, ask your driver if he or she is on track to hit their Quest bonus today and see what happens.
The second group — the UBIans, let’s call them — believe machine intelligence will soon replace much of work as we know it. The UBIan mantra is: “We work on algorithms in order that . . . oh no, humans may never need to work again.” As human labor increasingly becomes the most expensive input in the “technical stack,” this faction believes much of work will become obsolete and the government will need to give everyone some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to live.
Universal Basic Income has become intellectually so trendy in Silicon Valley that it’s a little like last season’s Juicero — faddish and frivolously accepted as something society really needs. When UBIans gather in their cryptocurrency WhatsApp groups — UBIans aren’t fans of dinner parties, as they tend to fast “to enhance cognitive function” during the week — they’ll cite the success of UBI in Kenya and Uganda, where GiveDirectly, a nonprofit, offers unconditional cash to small groups. Or the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has been supplying Alaskans with a yearly cash dividend since 1982. “On a limited scope,” they’ll say, “this works!”
As everyone knows, when Silicon Valley investors assess start-ups, their primary question is, “Will it scale?” When it comes to solving the riddle of an economy where work is dramatically changing, many who work with me in the digital economy are eager to foist the problem on Washington. Perhaps they know full well that our gridlocked Congress will not enact the greatest change to welfare since the New Deal. For many technologists, UBI is an intellectual get-out-of-jail-free card that makes it easier to stomach the long-term effects of our preferred business models.
On the flip side, many advocates for the gig economy genuinely believe their new business model is better for workers’ lives. And for many workers, it is: Uber and Lyft and many of their like are strong platforms for part-time workers who make gig work a supplement to a full-time job.
But the reality of who benefits seems to relate directly to the type of gig work one does and how much of it one performs: According to a JPMorgan Chase Institute study, from 2013 to 2017, gig-worker earnings fell by 53 percent in the transportation sector but grew by 69 percent in the leasing sector. Thus, if you’re driving, you’re likely worse off than you were five years ago. But if you’re renting an apartment, you’re faring much better.
Meanwhile, it’s somewhat unclear how many people the gig economy really serves. Government agencies can’t even agree on “who” a gig worker is: The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently declared a slight decline over 12 years in gig economy workers to 10 percent of the workforce, while the Federal Reserve says contractors compose closer to 30 percent, the difference being whether gig work is primary or supplemental income, which again, isn’t easy to measure. Even Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz, the two economists who published a widely cited study in 2016 on the gig economy, recently walked back their conclusions that the gig economy was growing rapidly.
Growing or not, it’s clear though that politicians are not keen to fund the social costs of these new business models; more likely, they will force tech companies to unravel the problems themselves. In December, New York officials enacted a guaranteed minimum wage for ride-hailing drivers of $17.22 per hour. Neither the UBERians nor the UBIans applauded. That may be because it’s increasingly clear what most people want: a traditional relationship with their employer. Silicon Valley would be wise to heed the signs — as well as the literal signage — now popping up on streets. Last year, when striking workers picketed outside many Marriott hotels in San Francisco, they held up signs that said, “One job should be enough.”
While the future may mean choosing no job or many, many of us are still with Aristotle, craving that weekend nap.