Uber’s takeover of the “I need a ride” industry can be compared to Amazon’s takeover of the “I want to buy something” industry. Some love it, some hate it, but like it or not, it’s happening. Uber’s success is indicative of a new employment movement sweeping the globe: the sharing economy.
The sharing economy is a new form of industry in which peer-to-peer sharing of access to goods and services is facilitated by community-based online services and apps. This involves matching people’s underutilized time and resources with people who need to save time or use those resources.
Uber’s model is to match drivers who have time and underutilized cars with people who need a ride. The result: thousands of Uber drivers have entered the market, many driving their own vehicles. They enjoy controlling their earnings, having the flexibility to work when they want, and not having to answer to a manager. In exchange for this freedom and flexibility, Uber drivers sacrifice the benefits associated with being traditional full-time employees.
While many consumers love Uber for lowering prices and making getting a ride as simple as clicking a button on an app, many taxi drivers complain that this newcomer is making it impossible for the incumbent taxi companies to continue to profitably operate. Many Uber drivers complain that fierce price competition between Uber and competitors like Lyft has driven rates so low that the money earned is no longer worth their time. Some also question the safety of Uber compared with traditional taxi services.
Given all the controversy, is this shift toward the sharing economy here to stay?
According to a recent survey by CareerArc, nearly 90 percent of respondents believe that the sharing economy is a positive evolution of the labor economy and 67 percent of people agree that despite the legal issues that may arise, the sharing economy is here to stay. In fact, a whopping 57 percent of job seekers have considered working in the sharing economy. This number jumps to 72 percent when workers are faced with a sudden job loss. People who work in the sharing economy love it for the flexibility it provides, the earning potential and the opportunity to work outside of the confines of an office environment. Additionally, workers enjoy the fact that due to the absence of direct management, they can self-manage.
The sharing economy has significantly lower barriers to entry and exit than traditional employment, which makes it a valuable way for people who seek to self-manage to gain experience in a defined system that is almost guaranteed to generate income. It also enables people who lose their jobs to continue earning income while looking for their next traditional job option and provides a way for those who are already employed to supplement their incomes.
The downside to working in the sharing economy: Workers are classified as contractors, not employees, so they do not get health care benefits or overtime pay. This explains why a Web search for “Uber” will yield results ablaze with controversy about whether employees who work for 40-plus hours per week should be reclassified as full-time employees and receive the associated benefits.
Since the sharing economy seems to be a shift that is growing rather than going away, perhaps the best solution toward making such employment sustainable lies in making alternatives to full-time employment benefits more accessible to everyday people. One of the main benefits that people fear losing if not traditionally employed is health insurance for themselves and their dependents. Government initiatives like Obamacare are playing an important role in lowering the risks associated with leaving full-time employment by creating affordable health care options for individuals.
The stage is set for the sharing economy to continue to grow. Savvy entrepreneurs can follow Uber’s example by creating easy-to-use systems to match underutilized resources with people who are willing to pay for them. Perhaps in coming decades, the 40-hour workweek and the idea of working in an office will be relics of the past as people embrace the entrepreneurialism and flexibility of the sharing economy.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Katy Sperry, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.