When Anna moved from a small town in Texas to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of acting, she knew she needed a way to make money to pay her rent. She thought of taking on a job at a café and becoming a waitress, like many Hollywood actresses before her, but the thought of not being able to control her own schedule and being paid only in tips stressed her out. So she turned to the collaborative economy. She became an Uber driver, rented out her sleeper sofa on AirBnB, and offered her skills in graphic design on Fiverr. By participating in the gig economy, Anna had a new way to make a living until she landed her first acting job while having enough time and flexibility to go on auditions each day.
Technology has enabled marketplaces to spring up that are better at scheduling and dispatching workers by using data to assess real-time customer demand. In his WTF Economy essay (meaning both the original WTF and What’s the Future?), Tim O’Reilly explores how artificial intelligence, the on-demand economy, and minimum wage are interconnected with each other and workers’ futures. O’Reilly’s comparison of on-demand independent contractors (i.e. Uber drivers, AirBnB hosts) to low-wage earning workers (Starbucks and McDonalds’ part-time employees), highlights what modern-day workers want from their jobs (flexibility, freedom) and what independent contractors lack from their gigs (benefits, wage regulations). Somewhere in the middle of these wants and lacks is a good strategy for the future of work and the way workdays are scheduled.
Is the algorithm really the shift boss?
When O’Reilly stated that the algorithm is the shift boss, what he was getting at is that in low-wage jobs, algorithms are programmed to ensure workers are scheduled to get less than the amount of hours that would require them to receive benefits from their employers and workers are not in control of their schedules. On the other hand, the on-demand economy is letting workers have flexible schedules, but also without benefits. Because of the controversy surrounding Uber and AirBnB, these on-demand services are seen by some as controversial. What’s not always taken into consideration is that thousands of people are flocking to participate in the collaborative economy because they see value in the freedom and flexibility it allows them to make a living. For a similar wage at a place like McDonald’s, they’d have to be “slaves to the machine” since their schedule and amount of work hours are dictated by an algorithm.
Because the economy is changing, workers are wanting the freedom of on-demand jobs, but need the benefits found at traditional companies. O’Reilly mentions that these benefits are most often coupled with companies, and that needs to change. Benefits should be tied to the workers who would ultimately receive them, no matter which companies they work for.
So what if there was happy medium between the on-demand economy and the WTF economy?
With Mila, we’ve discovered how to make the on-demand economy less demanding on our Friends (tech-savvy people that can be booked for tech support). In our collaborative economy model, Friends choose which jobs they’d like to take. And unlike other models, even after they’ve agreed to take on the job, they can still decline if they are no longer available to do it.
O’Reilly uses the example of low-wage earners at fast food restaurants that are scheduled by an algorithm. These workers must wait for their schedule each week, and go to work at the times assigned to them by the computer. While Uber drivers work when they want, they are still at the beck and call of the customer once a request comes in, since they have to drive to them immediately. But Mila Friends are in control of their own time because they schedule the service appointment with the customer at a time that is best for them. They don’t have to drop everything, and head over to the customer to complete the service call as soon as the request comes in, unless the Friend wants to do that.
Although the WTF economy mentions robots taking over a large amount of modern-day jobs, many jobs will still be safe in the coming years. So it’s great that technology enables people to offer their skills and expertise to others, while also making some extra money on top of what they make doing their regular job or other micro jobs (many Mila Friends have day jobs). Thanks to this technology-enabled platform, customers get the opportunity to have their problems solved quickly, while small local businesses and freelancers have more chances to earn a living.