How the Gig Economy Pits Casual Labor Against Full-Timers


Antoine Imbert | Flickr

Some people work in the gig economy because they want to, others because they have to. In a study of Uber and Lyft drivers, of which there are nearly a million in the U.S. alone, researcher Alex Rosenblat found that the interests of these two groups are different — and sometimes opposed (Harvard Business Review).

Here’s how that works: Only about 20 percent of drivers are full-time or near, but they handle a large proportion of rides taken. The majority of drivers, who are casual part-timers, give Uber flexibility, and the drivers are happy to get some spare cash. But the existence of this reserve pool gives the platform owner a buffer against the demands of the more dedicated workers. If the regulars ask for higher pay or better conditions, Uber can just tap into its reserve of extra workers. As Rosenblat puts it: “The availability of part-time earners reduces pressure on employers to create more sustainable earning opportunities.”

This dynamic may explain why so many serious ride-hail drivers start off enthusiastic and gradually sour on the whole deal, or why turnover is so high. The situation makes for a great economics field experiment — but it’s a lousy recipe for management-labor relations.

Tesla Shareholders OK Musk’s Big Adventure

Yesterday Tesla’s shareholders approved the acquisition of SolarCity, signing on to Elon Musk’s plan to combine the two companies he founded (Bloomberg). What do an electric-car innovator and a solar panel giant have in common, besides Musk? They both aim to liberate consumers from fossil fuels.

With Tesla’s autos, Musk beat the odds and succeeded in making electric cars cool. Now he’s going to try to do the same with a unified triple-play EV/battery/solar company. Your roof will capture the sun’s energy; the battery in your garage will store it; your car will run on it. New solar roof tiles — which Musk says will be cheaper and lighter than plain old asphalt shingles — are also in the works.

Wall Street skeptics see problems with the deal in its financial structure, and complain that Musk is just using one of his companies to bail out another. But Musk has proven himself more than just a brilliant dabbler; he’s an adept showman and a stubbornly persistent visionary. If anyone can hustle the clean-energy future along, it’s him.

Why We Don’t Like Talking About Hereditary Inequality

Family is destiny: Who your parents are and what their resources are is the single most powerful factor in determining your well-being. In the U.S., Horatio Alger myths obscure the fact that social mobility has been declining for decades. The U.K. has a longer history of a more rigid class divide. In both places, writes British social scientist Gideon Calder (The Conversation), people are noticeably uncomfortable talking about this “inequality of life chances.”

Calder finds two reasons for this: First, “family” is a sacred word — no one wants to be seen as attacking it. Second, facing up to hereditary inequality means coming to terms with the fact of inequality itself. If the differences between families were less extreme, the impact of family background would dwindle.

Highway Deaths Are Up — Are Apps to Blame?

Apps let you do so much from your car! It’s a wonderful world, until you get into an accident (The New York Times). Used to be, the “distracted driver” problem was a matter of gabbing on a call while you held your phone instead of the wheel. Now there’s a much wider world of app-based activities making their siren-call to you while you should be paying attention to the road.

Voice recognition technology is supposed to make it safer to use your smartphone’s powers while driving, but instead, voice control might just increase the temptation to do stuff with your phone when you should be focusing on the road.

That dynamic is being blamed for at least part of a recent increase in highway fatalities — the largest in 50 years. Short term remedies include tougher safety rules and better enforcement; long term, cross your fingers that autonomous vehicles come quick and work well.

A Silicon Valley Wake Up Call

The election results should send a message to the tech industry, writes Twitch founder Justin Kan (NewCo Shift): The fruits and gifts of technological innovation haven’t been shared widely enough.

“The current system is working for elites, for business leaders, for shareholders, and increasingly those people are from the tech industry,” says Kan. Meanwhile, everyone else is frustrated by a sense of stagnation. As tech leaders reinvent industries, they also need to enter into a social compact with the rest of America — one that assures a more widely shared prosperity and inclusive future.

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