The Sharing Economy

We’re starting to see glimpses of what the emerging new economy will look like. And it seems clear that what is being called “the sharing economy” will be part of it.

I’m not sure if there is yet any standard accepted definition of “the sharing economy,” but it is reflected in things like Air BnB and Uber. The idea is that we are taking things that are otherwise going unused or underused and turning them into a way to earn money, while providing a service to someone who needs it.

I’m a fan of the sharing economy. It seems to me to be a responsible way to use and conserve resources. And it appeals to my preference for thrift, frugality and community-based economies. I also like it because it sticks it to the man a little.

I have it on my mind after reading this interesting article. The authors are not fans, and their reasoning is interesting.

The piece uses a hypothetical young woman in Denver, who they name Zoe, as an illustration. Zoe works for a hotel, but the business is careful to limit her hours to 29 or less per week, so it doesn’t have to provide her with insurance or other benefits. To make ends meet Zoe does freelance landscaping through TaskRabbit, she shuttles people between bars on weekend nights through Uber and during tourist season she stays with her parents and rents out her apartment through AirBnb. These days, the authors say, people like Zoe will work for more people in a month that many in her parents’ generation worked for their entire lives.

The authors lament the loss of the employer-based economy, under which a person would go to work for a company and spend their entire working life there. The employer would provide insurance, paid vacations and possibly a pension. Zoe, they say, never goes on vacation, can save no money for retirement and only has insurance because of Obamacare.

But it seems to me that those things–retirement, paid vacation, “benefits”–are historical anomalies. An economy in which those things don’t come with employment, as perks, is just a return to the way things have always been. And, it seems to me, we’d better start getting used to not having them.

That’s not the only economic paradigm shift we’re facing when it comes to employment. We’ve already seen globalization gut the economies of the developed world, transforming us into supposed “service economies,” which might well be an unsustainable game of musical chairs. But now the rapid arrival of robotics and automation is eliminating jobs (by rendering them obsolete) in everything from agricultural labor to anesthesiology, and even more dramatic changes are immanent it seems to me.

If “the economy” is dependent upon consumer spending, yet is rapidly destroying the livelihoods of the consumers upon whom it depends, then something’s gotta give.

As we transition to the next state, the “sharing economy” will become increasingly important, it seems to me. And the new economy, whatever final form it may take, will be an economy that is less consumeristic and less dependent upon corporate employers, the government and illusions of prosperity.

At least that’s my hope. I don’t care for the alternatives.