airbnb home party

It’s not unusual for policy to lag behind social change, but it’s never more obvious than when it involves life online. Mobilizing behemoth bureaucracies to match the nimble speed of internet evolution is virtually impossible, and thus it seems that policy is forever playing catch up with the next big thing. Lately, this big thing has been the shared economy. Organizations like AirBnB, Lyft, Uber, and TaskMonkey have revolutionized the online economy with mixed results, and U.S. courts are struggling to understand  and legislate these new realities.

The Tiny Fern Forest Treehouse - Lincoln, VT
The Tiny Fern Forest Treehouse – Lincoln, VT. Image courtesy of Sébastien Barré.

The shared economy is often hailed as the new face of employment, with a recent article from The Wall Street Journal claiming,

“Once upon a time, people went and got a job and had a single boss. Those days are nearing their end. With the rise of the shared economy, everyone is now an entrepreneur. Anyone can drive their car with Uber or Lyft, deliver groceries with Instacart or rent their home on Airbnb. In 2014, consumers started buying these services en masse — 2015 will be the year when consumers become the supply side en masse.”

If the WSJ is right and 2015 becomes the tipping point for an en masse identity shift from consumer to service provider, we can expect issues surrounding these organizations to take center stage as well. One of the most prominent is the fact that while these services allow an unprecedented amount of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy to its workers, these perks inevitably come at a cost.  As CNN points out,

“…[workers] will have no access to basic legal rights like minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, employer-provided benefits and most critically, the formal right to come together and bargain with the companies for better wages and working conditions.”

The fact that this much-coveted freedom and flexibility comes at a cost will only become more apparent as greater numbers people shift their main forms of employment from typical 9-5 jobs to those of these independent contractors. Working for yourself, as any small business owner knows, means you don’t have to answer to a boss, but you also don’t have the support, infrastructure, or benefits of a conventional job either.

So the question becomes, is it worth it? Do the benefits of the shared economy outweigh the losses? While the jury is (in some cases, literally) out on this question as it concerns those on the front lines — the drivers and errand-doers themselves — the answer for the companies is clear: Yes.

The sharing economy was valued at $15 billion in 2013, and Price Waterhouse Cooper is estimating that it may reach $335 billion globally by the year 2025. The lion’s share of this profit is landing squarely in the laps of the organizations themselves – the pseudo-taxi company Uber alone is valued at $41 billion dollars.  Seven years ago, the company didn’t exist.

Perhaps the most interesting issue raised by these questions is how much a shift in perspective can alter popular opinion — typically, when a company claims much of the profit and assumes little responsibility for its workers we call it exploitation, but in the case of the shared economy, we call it innovation instead.

Feature image courtesy of Kevin Krejci

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.