The Difficulty of Making a Living in the Gig Economy

“People who are renting their homes out in Airbnb or driving for Lyft, they may make more money than working a minimum-wage job,” says Jeremiah Owyang, a former social-media analyst who last December launched Crowd Companies, a firm devoted to helping name brands such as Ford and Home Depot connect with startups in the gig economy. These folks are doing so well, in fact, Owyang says, “For some brands, this is a threat to employment.”

The only way to find out whether the tech world’s solution for the poor job market and income inequality had the answer was to put it to the test. For four weeks this winter, spread out over a six-week period to avoid the holidays, I hustled for work in the gig economy. Technically I was undercover, but I used my real name and background, and whenever asked, I readily shared that I was a journalist. (Alas, people were all too willing to accept that a writer was a perfect candidate for alternative sources of income.) I have changed the names of anyone who did not know, when I was speaking to them, that I was working on this story.

I decided that I would accept any gigs I could get my hands on in pursuit of my goal: I would use the slick technology and shimmering promise of the Silicon Valley-created gig economy to beat Capitol Hill’s $10.10 per hour proposal. How hard could it be?

Sarah Kessler tried becoming a “micro-entrepreneur” by participating in the “gig economy” — applying to be a part of TaskRabbit and bidding to do random side jobs, teaching a gift-wrapping Skillshare class, posting profiles on DogVacay detailing her dog-sitting qualifications as well as on-demand services like Exec (cleaning) and WunWun and Postmates (delivery). She wrote about her experience for Fast Company.

Kessler is immediately rejected from some of these places without explanation, and has trouble making much money while doing TaskRabbit jobs (“After two full days of bidding on tasks, I’ve made a whopping $52.”) After hitting the pavement for a while, Kessler does find odd jobs to fill up her day, but the money isn’t enough to be a “threat to employment” (on one of her best days she makes $11 an hour with only a 10-minute break for lunch). Doing the jobs also raise larger questions:

My experiences in the gig economy raise troubling issues about what it means to be an employee today and what rights a worker, even on a assignment-by-assignment basis, are entitled to. The laws regarding what constitutes an employee have not yet caught up to the idea that jobs are now being doled out by iPhone push notification.

Photo: Amsterdamized