Reclaiming the Gig Economy

Platform-based work hasn’t delivered on its promises. Can worker-owned cooperatives do better?

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Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, isn’t the first to cast a skeptical eye on the so-called sharing economy. But her new book, After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back (University of California Press, 2020), provides a longer and deeper view of these platform-based businesses thanks to research she and her team of graduate students have conducted since 2011. The book traces the evolution of companies brokering services such as local transport and lodging, from their quasi-idealistic origins to purely commercial businesses where revenue growth is often at the expense of the people actually delivering the services. MIT Sloan Management Review recently spoke with Schor — who, in addition to being a sociologist, also earned a Ph.D. in economics and taught the subject at Harvard for 17 years — to find out where the sharing economy has fallen short and how it could be improved.

MIT Sloan Management Review: What exactly do you mean when you say that the sharing economy was hijacked?

Schor: Most of these platforms were launched with an idealistic discourse. Founders typically espoused three benefits: economic, social, and environmental. Economically, they said the platforms would give workers more freedom — they could set their own schedules and not have a boss. And since many of these platforms were founded during the Great Recession, they also offered an opportunity for people to make money at a time when it was hard to find regular employment.

Socially, the platforms were promoted as enabling person-to-person exchanges. These personalized economic relations would lead to stronger social connections. The discourse promised environmental benefits — reduced carbon emissions in particular. The original idea for ride-sharing was that people already driving to a destination would pick up a passenger who wanted to travel in that direction, saving the emissions that passenger’s solo trip would have produced. Airbnb talked about less construction of new hotels; you’d use housing that already existed to lodge people. And TaskRabbit’s origin story is that the founder needed dog food and thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just find someone who was in the store already, and could pick up the food for me?”

Of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Some of those claims weren’t plausible to begin with.

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