Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft are just a few of the top names we know that make up the growing trend labeled the “sharing economy.” Its purpose: to progress into an economic model that is P2P, people to people. A model that is supposed to reduce our reliance on big corporations and instead reach out to our common neighbor to share and conduct business. While it supposedly offers a new direction away from the capitalist model, its creators are ignoring problems of the current economy.
The sharing economy, for many, is the next evolutionary step of transitioning all business transactions to be solely online. The sharing model shares many similarities of that with the '90s dot-com boom and the with the type of thinking of using online to transform businesses. And while the sharing economy is a booming market and quickly expanding, its impact on the economy as a whole is too early to determine the true nature of what is to become of the movement. At the moment, the current display of values each company is professing and what their collective impact on individuals actually is paints a complicated and alarming picture.
Airbnb and Uber are the two most famous examples of the sharing economy with their dramatic growth in the last couple years. Airbnb has exploded into the market allowing people to rent out their home or parts of their home through the internet. Uber, in a similar fashion, is quickly altering the way we think of taxi services – potentially making those yellow cabs obsolete – as the company runs on workers who use their own vehicles to taxi customers around using an app on their phone to connect with nearby drivers.
These two services are a welcome alternative to the otherwise expensive and inconvenience of finding a hotel, or waiting for that yellow cab to appear to take you to your next destination. In our sped-up world where convenience is king, we attribute these kinds of quick reaction and near-instant gratification as beneficial for everyone. We're all on the go and all have something else to be doing than wasting money, or worse, wasting time.
Proponents speak of the all-inclusive ability of the sharing economy to allow everyone to connect with each other. It's a way to navigate around the evil and impersonal corporation. Some might take note of the irony here, especially when looking further into the profiles of those running Uber, Airbnb and other various sharing economy businesses. Uber alone is valued at $41 billion and is continuing to expand, even while breaking the law and dealing with potential lawsuits in various cities. Airbnb, which started in the drearily gentrified city of San Francisco, is in the works with a private firm that would place their value at $13 billion. With both Uber and Airbnb, the actual providers of goods and services,the people renting out their homes and vehicles, don't share in the value of income that the people in the corporate offices of these businesses do.
Working 60-hour work weeks, drivers of Uber are lucky if they pull in $14 an hour. And this is on top of the restrictive rating system. Airbnb renters income can range from $15,000 to $75,000 a year. In most cases, homeowners using Airbnb have helped them maintain their apartment or home in the face of looming eviction.
The largest misconception when calling this movement a “sharing” economy is that it actually perpetuates the gentrification of neighborhoods with the subletting of rooms from owners and renters facing foreclosure due to lack of funds. Airbnb itself is not the main driver for gentrifying cities like San Francisco, but their presence along with other tech companies is a major cause. In order to diffuse gentrification, cities restrict short term leases or subletting and Airbnb attempts to stop the practice, but they are only bandaging a problem for those who might otherwise be homeless or live in neighborhoods that are financially unfeasible.
As the company attributes itself with opening up the economy to make a world where people can work and share with each other, some of the leadership in the company echo the divide that is being felt in lower-income neighborhoods. A video that went viral last year shows the techies from Airbnb renting out an otherwise public soccer ball field. The video shows a local resident, who was eventually forced out of his home in the Mission district, explaining to the techies that it's a public field and trying to compromise and play together, a common practice in the community.The techies instead decide to split up the field, keeping the barriers between the haves and soon-to-be have-nots.
To be fair, Airbnb has helped some cities, such as assisting the city of San Francisco to pull in more local dollars to business that aren't often seen by tourists and visitors who stay in hotels. Yet, the issue that comes with companies like Airbnb and Uber is their appearance as a friendly and non-corporate entity to avoid having to expose the negative aspects of their business. By framing the dialogue of their movement with words like “sharing” they are appealing to the progressives ideals of being communal, but in reality, they proceed under the same corporate model structure of profit flow. They are neoliberal projects hiding under the guise of progressive politics.
By creating a sense of community and allowing workers to partake in their environment, they can persuade the public that they are good and helpful. With the cheaper prices, avoiding unions, circumventing taxes, and in some cases ignoring city or state laws, they appeal to the people who might otherwise opt of out to vacationing in the city or country. And with Airbnb expanding to allow businesses using the service, it will alter the way companies and other corporations might look at business trips with the cheaper housing costs. Again, this a direct benefit to the upper class, while the middle and lower class continue their descent into poverty, if they're not already there.
The CEO and founders of Airbnb and Uber are counting on people to connect with the idea that the market and rules of the economy have changed after the recession. Millennials no longer look at employment as a stable and secure position. It's what images we present on our social media that we can sell; we are the commodity. Our identity is therefore connected to the person we sell online and it's through this that we make a living.
While I'll admit, I don't think that office job for life is going to come back, nor would I want it, I think the fact that by sidestepping job security and liveable wages these businesses and this economic model is harmful to future generations. We may not have those secure jobs for life our parents had, but people still want a job that provides some security, some insurance, and a liveable wage.
In most cases, a large portion of the sharing economy is made up of workers who are in transitional phases; working a job and looking for extra income, students, or college graduates that are struggle to find a job in ever shrinking market. Many may argue that's where the sharing economy is helping. But, as I've said earlier, they aren't looking to solve the root of these problems.
Common Dreams had a fantastic piece that gets in depth on the many things the sharing economy model can do if they want to have a real changing effect. Things like working to stomp out poverty by providing livable wages. Using their profits in environmental models that would pull our dependence away from fossil fuels. And companies like Uber and Lyft would be more helpful to combating global warming and making the world reduce its consumption by investing into public transportation.
Using the word “sharing” is key to promoting their friendly image in creating their business model. Co-op's and real worker owned companies are actually having positive impacts and the real potential economic model for change. If these billion dollar companies were to break up the corporate model and turn their business model into a co-op or worker-run company (especially in cases like Airbnb and Uber where the workers are not only doing the work but providing the raw materials: cars and homes) that would be a real sharing economy. To build an economy based around worker owned companies would be a game changer and really address the issues that tend to arise when a private or public company grows quickly and leaves little for the workers below.
There are many good companies that are part of the sharing economy and using it as a means to make a profit and positively contribute to communities. I picked Uber and Airbnb because they are the most famous and biggest drivers as to what happens next. I fear that if anything these companies will expand and continue to exploit the workers and continue the current economic trend of not solving anything. I fear they might continue to take advantage of those who are in debt with the appeal that they can go on a cheap vacation while dismantling the unions and workers rights that are already disappearing. By acknowledging these issues now, consumers can push these companies to be true to what they preach. Otherwise, we'll be sold into a way of thinking that will leave more people struggling, and a world more divided.