The conveniences of consumerism have cleverly coaxed us to embark on a path where we perpetually shy away from making any sort of commitment. We are unable to commit to a career, a companion or even a course of action. Something or someone shiny grabs our short-lived attention span and before we know it, we’re on a downward spiral of more, more, and more.
But more what, exactly? More distractions, of course!
In 2013, I found myself in the US and ended up staying for longer than I had initially expected. Staying in a hotel wasn’t a viable option. I mean, it’s alright for a few days now and then; but definitely not for weeks or months. That’s when I discovered AirBnB. It was my foray into the benefits of the sharing economy. I relied largely on positive reviews to make my decision regarding the stranger whose home I was going to stay at.
In 2018, some five years later, I found myself looking for freelancers to delegate to as I started my first business. I applied what I had learned during my AirBnB days to hire freelancers for ‘gigs’.
But as my business grew, the gig economy simply wasn’t enough. It’s called the gig economy precisely because it is a gig. You need a place to crash or a logo designed or even someone to get you from point A to point B. You’re unlikely to ever stay there ever again, need that same logo ever again, or end up with the same driver ever again. There is a short-term focus to the transaction. You simply cannot form a long-term relationship that you can invest in over the long haul–no matter how much you enjoyed it or needed it in that moment.
There is no doubt that the internet makes more transactions possible by linking buyers and sellers that would not have otherwise ‘met’. This mechanism of exchange boomed exponentially as smartphones became commonplace. The small size of the device coupled with the convenience of touchscreen technology has made the smartphone a popular, indispensable and addictive device.
While the gig economy has been celebrated as a means by which we can enhance the productivity of under-utilised resources, it has also raised the disconcerting issue of the long-term viability of relying on these services. Although many people choose to operate as and even hire freelancers–I am highly dubious regarding its feasibility as a long-term solution to our economic needs.
Statistically speaking, the appearance of all these tech gizmos and gadgets has not accelerated the growth of our economies. This is not to say that there is no growth, but that developed economies–the ones that actually invent these advanced gadgets–are growing… very slowly. The reason? Economist Robert Gordon argues that it is because unlike the industrial revolution, which created whole new industries, the recent technological advancements (of which we are all compulsive consumers) are based on mass entertainment, mass information and mass communication.
The bountiful blessings of the internet have led us down a path of untempered temptation. The ability to listen to music, watch movies and window shop–and to do it all anonymously–provides the convenience of a quick pleasure fix. Instead of increasing productivity, huge chunks of time are wasted on meaningless ‘fun’ activities that have no bearing on economic output. Due to the ubiquity of the internet; work-related calls, emails, and messages have also eaten into our leisure and family time.
Startup lore is quick to celebrate technological breakthroughs that disrupt traditional structures. But technological progress has always been greeted by resistance–by both employers as well as employees. It is not just the old guards of yesteryear that are suspicious regarding the changes that emerge out of technological ‘progress’. Employees, too, bemoan the job losses that it brings about. In the modern world, we dismiss and dismantle time-tested traditions in the name of technological progress without giving enough preemptive thought to what happens when technology spirals out of control.
From a historical perspective, the need for a flexible and more inclusive labour market started with the end of World War II. Female participation rate in the workforce increased, family sizes shrank and we had more disposable income with which to pursue other activities. Order eventually emerged after a period of disorder.
The gig economy has raised many red flags–particularly with regards to the rights of the labour force. Over the course of the 19th to 20th century, workers demanded–and later received–paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, pensions and healthcare. These benefits were largely granted to full-time employees. From the employer’s point of view, they add significantly to the cost of hiring staff. From a cost vs benefits perspective, is changing from a traditional employer to a platform provider really worth it?
The fact remains that from an employer’s perspective, a business needs a reasonable level of law and order if it is to begin, operate and profit from its activities. Businesses have a variety of needs–from infrastructure to an independent judiciary to transportation requirements. An economy based on manufacturing and services has complex needs. In a gig based economy, the main fear is income shortage. There can be no long-term view or concern if this is the sole economic impetus for our lives.
When the government and the private sector collaborate, the focus shifts from short-run to long-run. We are no longer sprinters looking for the next gig, but marathon runners who are in it for the long haul. There is public interest in finding and funding long-term research endeavours which benefit large segments of the population. Private companies, which tend to focus on the bottom line, may be unwilling or unable to provide funding for projects that may require a longer time horizon for a payoff. They also have no vested interest in funding research that does not tie in with the interests of their investors. In recent years, this has been one of the most powerful arguments for proponents of government intervention in the economy.
Governments, by their very nature, will always be subject to competing pressures–from consumers to workers to private interests. While many needlessly worry that corporations can have too much influence over the government, there have been numerous cases where they had too little, and that, in itself, led to resource rich countries that were devastated by abysmal corporate policies.
The fact remains that in the absence of a steady income or employment history–planning for the future becomes increasingly difficult for both employers and employees. When we add our mental biases to this explosive cocktail–a bias that is driven by the commitment-phobic nature of the consumerism culture and our gig economy–it is not a far-fetched claim to predict that our lives will end up resembling driftwood, floating around in the waves that take us here and there with no real destination in sight.