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Businesses The Almighty Buck

The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death (newyorker.com) 476

Writing for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino documents stories of several people -- a nine-month pregnant Lyft driver, for instance -- who contribute to companies that work on the model of gig economy. Through these tales, Tolentino underscores an increasingly growing pattern in the Silicon Valley (and elsewhere) where companies offer hard-labor contracts to people, pay them peanuts (with little liabilities), and yet find a reason to celebrate their business and encourage more to come onboard. From the article: Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture capital by November, 2015, has more about the "In Doers We Trust" campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges "doers" to "always be available," to think about beating "the trust-fund kids," and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their dentist. A Fiverr press release about "In Doers We Trust" states, "The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today's emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding." This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation -- or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It's a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars. I'd guess that plenty of the people who advertise services on Fiverr would accept some "whiteboarding" in exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance. At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy's rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.
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The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death

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  • by dehachel12 ( 4766411 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:04AM (#54094919)
    companies report record profits and the rich get richer.
    guillotines are being prepared.
    • Good thing it takes longer to work someone to death if you're paying them a little bit. Slavery is for suckers.
  • I thought this was a slashvertisments for whatever that 'fiver' company is, but after reading the summary, I still have no idea what that 'fiver' company is, or what the hell this story is about.

    • Re: Huh? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Entrope ( 68843 )

      I think it's called Fiverr because you work for an hour and earn a fiver, or something.

      This article mostly seems to be about stirring up outrage over the fact that people can choose the terms and hours of their work.

      • Re: Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Squiddie ( 1942230 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:16AM (#54094977)
        The outrage is that this is the future that awaits most workers in almost any sector, and instead of trying to remedy this, we think it's a positive thing that people can choose between poor working conditions and starvation.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The thing is, I've used fiverr. I paid $5 to have some EE student in Romania create some parts for KiCAD that I had no time to do myself and then published the parts under an open license for use by others. Once you know how to read a datasheet and use KiCAD, you can whip these things out in minutes. $5 is not much to me, but it's a great gig for a student in a poorer country. Same with 3D models for the same parts -- had some kid in the Philippines whip a few up for me.

          I've also used Upwork to have pro

          • Re: Huh? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @10:42AM (#54095707)

            And your money goes abroad, fueling the economy there instead of here. It's basically the same problem you can potentially have with immigrants who send the money they earn here back home to their family where the 30 bucks surplus they maybe generate are a fortune, while here it's basically a dinner for two at a restaurant.

            Now extrapolate and you have a restaurant near you closing down because there aren't enough patrons frequenting it. Leading to its waiters getting unemployed. And the domino line continues.

            Sending money abroad weakens your economy. And may eventually endanger your own job.

            • Re: Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

              by war4peace ( 1628283 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @04:20PM (#54098457)

              Um... no.
              You send money abroad when you buy ANYTHING made in China or wherever.
              You send money abroad when using any service which is at some point in its flow using any resources which are not internal to the country you live in.
              Those immigrants sending money to their own countries should be VERY low in your priority list.

              Your mobile phone, clothes, car, TV, even food, all of them read "money sent abroad" when you look at them. If anything, immigrants actually REDUCE those amounts indirectly through them paying taxes, renting homes locally, eating food locally, etc., although they're subjected to the same issues that you're facing (stuff they use also originates from abroad to some extent).

        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:58AM (#54095313)

          People hate on unions, then wonder why they are treated like crap by employers.

        • Re: Huh? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by aaarrrgggh ( 9205 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @10:06AM (#54095375)
          I think Uber and Lyft are an awful scam for the drivers, but we should ask ourselves if the "gig economy" is better or worse than working three minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, as was the case in the late 80's through early 90's. Or, being a taxi driver and barely making your gate fee plus gas in a day.

          There are workers marginalized by geography, education, social issues, and family conditions that are poorly utilized; the net effect of this is they cannot demand higher wages. It is hard for me to understand if it is better for them to do nothing, or eke out a little income to help themselves out.

          Personally, I know a few people that would rather make $50-75/day from home doing "gigs" than $100-150/day commuting to a job. I think they are approaching the problem illogically, but that is their life and decision.
      • Re: Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:20AM (#54095003)

        Since you are so obviously in favour of choice, for your lunch you have the following choices:

        1. Shit sandwich
        2. Vomit stew
        3. Ground glass hash

        Enjoy!

        • Re: Huh? (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Entrope ( 68843 )

          Meanwhile, in the real world, I will probably make my own lunch (a departure from my routine, because reasons), but there are plenty of places near me willing to trade tasty, reasonably nutritious food for either a lot of money or a little, as I wish.

          • by GlennC ( 96879 )

            ... there are plenty of places near me willing to trade tasty, reasonably nutritious food...

            But are you sure those places will still exist after they've been undercut by the flood of cheap crap food vendors?

            Even if you do find one, will you be able to afford it?

            • Back in the 1980s and 1990s, chains like McDonald's we're focusing mostly on low prices, and less on quality and nutrition. Somehow, there are more non-chain and small-chain restaurants now than there were then, at least where I've lived.

              And having eaten at the second Five Guys location when it was the best one, I get a kick out of its success.

              Except for self-deprecating jokey product names, we sure don't seem to be heading towards a Soylent future.

      • A Bitcoin fiver would make it worth my time. Healthcare ain't cheap; and could get a lot more expensive or completely unobtainable.
    • Well, then you managed to avoid the context given by the preamble to the summary. They're saying Fivvvvvrr.com 2.0 (or whatever the f--- they're called) sucks. It doesn't really matter what they make, because that's not what the article is about, it's about how they're an example of a company that dresses up the fact they shit all over the people they work for them by dressing up Victorian labor conditions as dynamism.

    • Glad it wasn't just me.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:08AM (#54094935)

    "The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today's emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding."

    Whoever came up with that deserves excessive waterboarding.

  • Celebrates trolling people into clicking on bullshit.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Who is the sucker here?

    • Starvation is not really an acceptable alternative to a shitty job.

  • by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:16AM (#54094973)

    > the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.

    It's a choice between community and individuals. Self-reliance was great back in the day when you could (in theory) walk into the wilds and build your own civilization, but if you want a modern standard of living there are simply too many things to do, too much to know. We rely heavily on people taking on highly specialized roles and ultimately everyone lives better as a result.

    Modern 'self-reliance' is more like modern 'fuck you, I got mine'. It's people exploiting others and making them like it by holding out the carrot of their own anomalous success. And we eat it up because the human brain is shitty at probabilities... we all think WE are going to be the next big exploiter when the odds are far better that we'll win the lottery, and the truth is we're more likely to die by lightning strike than have either of those things happen.

    Americans have to get over their fear of socialism and accept that, all other things being equal, a community that works together is stronger and more prosperous than one that does not. Or they can watch wealth disparity continue to increase, a smaller and smaller portion of the population living like near-Gods while the greater portion has less and less. It'll take time for that to become apparent, so long as bellies are full and everyone has an Internet connection, but eventually the mob rises up and you get a revolution.

    • by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:28AM (#54095067)
      Where are my mod points today?
    • by UPZ ( 947916 )
      Brilliantly said. Need to make a documentary explaining this and showing examples.
    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      > the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.

      Americans have to get over their fear of socialism and accept that, all other things being equal, a community that works together is stronger and more prosperous than one that does not.

      Except that the concept of "self reliance" is enshrined in the US constitution and is such a part of the American psyche that I don't know if it can ever be removed.

      (bear with me .. this may seem like a left wing rant, but it is not)

      For example this is seen in the 2nd amendment where the right to bear arms is enshrined. But why would you give someone the right to individually bear arms? That can only be because you want to allow them to be able to unilaterally act in using those arms. Thus in the 2nd ame

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:54AM (#54095275) Journal

      Americans have to get over their fear of socialism and accept that, all other things being equal, a community that works together is stronger and more prosperous than one that does not.

      You are both right and totally wrong at the same time. Socialism isn't about community its about the state as a stand in for community! Yes we need to accept that in the modern world very men can be islands. Bureaucracy isn't the answer though, it does not scale. Just sit an watch Argentina, Greece, and for that matter the whole Western Europe as it faces mass immigration! That is the future socialism results in.

      What we need is actually a form of isolationism. We need force the capital class to have some ties to place and their community again. We can't let them just be world tourists! If you make it harder or impossible for them to import labor from elsewhere, make it hard for them to take their capital over national boarders, etc. They will be forced to invest in their local community to secure their own feature. Right now its "I need H1Bs because there are to few qualified Americans" It needs change to "I need to build a science center in $city and donate heavily to the local schools so my business will have pool of qualified people to hire in the future." That is what community is about and that is the relationship between capital and community we need to create.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by meta-monkey ( 321000 )

      Americans have to get over their fear of socialism and accept that, all other things being equal, a community that works together is stronger and more prosperous than one that does not.

      Like the USSR? Like Venezuela? You're completely wrong. All socialism does is replace a wealthy class that buys political power with a political class that steals wealth. And rapaciously. The end result is everyone (except our political class) begging for $5.

    • It's a choice between community and individuals.

      With one statement, you show yourself the fool, utterly lacking in understanding of what individualism is about, or the power of what it can do - not for a person, but for the COMMUNITY.

      Individualism is not "I got mine". At the heart it is, if possible do not be a burden to others, because you have taken care of yourself as best you can. If you are personally in good shape then it makes it far easier to help others.

      Your philosophy is the truest form of self

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:18AM (#54094989)

    This all stems from the widespread adoption in America of the the Puritan philosophy of human worth, best summed up as "the quality, quantity, and duration of achievement."

    So, yes, by their standards the ultimate goal is to work hard, until death, to earn a place by the side of god as the most righteous. The bonus is that this also allows the hardest workers in life to demean those who have not worked so hard.

    • That's stupid. Simple and plainly.

      Work is the necessary evil to get money. Nothing more, nothing less. I can find stuff to do just fine myself, there is no need to keep me occupied. But I need money, like everyone else. That is the only reason to work.

      Any work has to provide enough money to make it worth the time wasted on it.

  • Wouldn't you be better off pestering your Facebook friends selling pyramid scheme essential oils or something?
    • Fiverr is more of an escrow service than a gig-firm.

      I've used it to hire Graphic Designers when I could not find anyone local.

      It fills a narrow niche, but they've somehow blown it out if proportion.

      • Oh ok, that actually sounds useful. From only being tangentially aware of it, it sounded more like a place to hire some random person to clean your gutter instead of asking the neighbor's kid or whatever.
  • by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:25AM (#54095037)

    “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

    I'll see you and raise you this:

    "The busy man is never wise, and the wise man is never busy".
    - Lin Yutang

    • "You follow through on your follow through"

      Gees, I didn't realise you had to shit yourself twice to qualify.

  • And the point is? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Fringe ( 6096 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:31AM (#54095079)
    The last time that you could get a decent permanent job without solid skills and education was the 70s. But they weren't easy jobs - things like auto plant worker. And many of those jobs vanished in the 80s. Today's WSJ has an article why [wsj.com]... basically people got progressively more expensive, while automation got less expensive. The "gig economy" is no different than what people did before about it... Amway or Fuller, or holding Tupperware parties, or starting a lawn care or housecleaning service, or starting your own cab/limo company before cities regulated and medallioned that option off the list. The unfortunate part is that we fall for the sob stories, the anecdotes of emotion, and then close off another rung on the upward-mobility ladder in the name of protecting the people that, as a result, are held down more firmly.
    • then close off another rung on the upward-mobility ladder

      Are you saying Uber, et al are rungs on the ladder? Because they're not. Real rungs on the ladder are things like "education" and "not going into debt forever cause you got sick at 19"

      Or, more precisely, that auto plant worker was really working his way up a ladder. But Uber et al explicitly do not allow for advancement.

  • by sinij ( 911942 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:36AM (#54095119)
    SV is one huge company town right from the last century. The only thing that is missing is Pinkerton thugs cracking skulls.

    This is the logical conclusion of all union-busting that we have done last 25 years. While you might hate unions, the alternative is much worse.
  • it's doing it to the folks who want to hire their workers for peanuts. From what I can tell it's a platform to connect people to Uber cheap (pun intended) labor overseas. It's actually terrifying. One of the few good sources of jobs left in America is small businesses too tiny to outsource. Fivver might kill those too. If you're a consultant and you're reading this you should be sweating bullets right about now.
  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @09:50AM (#54095231)

    American society has always had the obsession on self-reliance, but I'm glad people are starting to see gig economy jobs for what they are. The question is what we do when the possibilities of realistically supporting yourself evaporate completely, and we go back to a semi-feudal system -- the nobles having all the power and letting the peasants who serve them exist at the bare minimum standard.

    For decades in the US, the formula was simple:
    - If you're smart, go to college and study anything. A large company will hire you at the entry level and take you through to the end of your career
    - If you're semi-skilled, go to trade school, become an apprentice and join a trade union; there will be work until you retire.
    - If you're less skilled, go join a union and work in a factory -- same deal, there will always be work.

    It seems to me like this is gone, and no one noticed until now, or brushed it off. The modern economy is built around steady paychecks -- people can't buy a house for cash, they have to get a mortgage and pay it off as they earn. Same thing for consumer credit...no one is going to go into debt if they feel they can't pay for it, and debt is what drives the economy to some extent.

    Steady paychecks are one of the reasons I've stayed out of the IT contracting world, even though I've been told I'd be excellent at it. It's stressful worrying about your job, or where the money is going to come from, and having to constantly hustle to find new work.

    • Is there such a thing as a steady paycheck these days? The company could go tits-up tomorrow, or close your department and ship the work to Onlyexistedfortwoyearsistan.

  • Going off-grid an living in middle of nowhere sounds better every day. Of course that is not a effective and sustainable solution that can accomodate everone. :D

    Just working hard and long is not the road to a great life if you are working on the wrong thing. Lyft, Uber, Fiverr etc. are among those. Working hard at creating those companies might have been.

  • "Self-reliance" does not mean working yourself to death for peanuts. Oh, are we going to have the government step in, because you're too stupid to keep a reasonable work/life balance and negotiate fair compensation? Ultimately, you're going to want to progress from the tier of self-employment to owning your own business, because in the long term owning your own job means having no paid vacation or sick days. But self-employment is often the next step on getting out of the employment scam. You know the o
  • Yeah, they may "pay them little". But if the people taking these jobs had higher paying alternatives, they would be taking them. So, "paying them little" is better than getting no money at all.

  • by The Raven ( 30575 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @10:25AM (#54095561) Homepage

    Tools like Fiverr, Mechanical Turk, etc are an amazing way to create positive trade with low-income nations. They get a living wage, we get cheap labor, everyone wins.

    They are an abysmal way to run a sustainable first-world economy, due to all the problems listed in the many comments above.

    But don't let the shittiness of a gig economy in the US, EU, and other prosperous areas overshadow the value they have in allowing poor areas of the world an instant economic advantage. The Internet has allowed us a way to provide aid without creating beggers, to create a cash flow where value is moving in the both directions, and to allow for economic success in developing nations without sweatshops and mines, without employers siphoning off most of the wealth, or warlords stealing the crops.

    Five dollars for an hour of work is shitty here, but when five dollars can be a days wage (or a weeks) in many places it's amazing. If they can get Internet access (and that's a big if...) then it opens up a huge economic opportunity for many of the poorest nations. This kind of opportunity is why Google projects to get the Internet out to rural Africa, India, and South America are so vital.

    So yes, it sucks for us here. It should be fought. But the idea itself has merit, it's just where it's being applied that is inappropriate.

  • by holophrastic ( 221104 ) on Thursday March 23, 2017 @10:43AM (#54095719)

    I've been one for three decades now. Self-employed is, and always has been, a recipe for way more work. The benefit, of course, is way more control; you're expected to translate that control into less work over time -- either by shifting the type of work, or by proceduralizing the efforts involved.

    A gig, as is being discussed, doesn't provide any control benefits. A lyft driver can't outsource the driving, can't build the better car, and can't make better routes. Similarly, most of the other gigs are already fully proceduralized, and hence are already so commodity-based, that there is no legitimate benefits for improvement. This results in the up-front huge efforts similar to any self-employment, but without any opportunity to reap the benefits of that extra work.

    Secondly, and this is probably the bigger deal, most of these gig-workers aren't entrepreneurs. Instead, they are would-be-factory-workers, lured by more-and-flexible hours, unable to see what they've lost as a result. Typical wage-earners usually work full weeks, for reasonable pay, with reasonable hours and reasonable benefits, but dream of "more hours" and "more flexibility". These gigs offer both of those, but don't translate into "more money".

    But that's always been the farce of "the american dream". You can come to america, and you have every opportunity to make-it-big. You can be the next mcjagger. Of course, so can everyone else, so you aren't at all likely to be. What percentage of garage-bands become the rolling stones? You're much more likely to fizzle -- on the order of a 100 to 1. Think about it. 300 million americans, 1% make it big, 297 million don't -- and 200 million don't even come close, with 100 million failing miserably.

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