Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research and frequent SmallBusiness.com contributor, responds to a business media narrative he has continued to see growing since writing about it earlier this year: a narrative that suggests most independent workers in the on-demand economy are displeased with their work, or worse, are exploited. Such a narrative is contradicted by the research Emergent and others have conducted, writes King. As he noted in his earlier article, “The accurate view is this: Independent work is good for most and bad for many, a view that rarely shows up in the media.”
On-demand economy backlash
It seems like every time I turn on my computer, I see another story about how bad on-demand economy jobs are. Even entertainment news is joining the bandwagon with coverage of a taxi-driver protesting during Thursday’s taping of Stephen Colbert’s interview with the CEO of Uber.
To be fair, not all on-demand economy workers are positive about their work. There’s also clearly a dark side of independent work. Better laws and protections are needed to improve the working conditions of independent workers being exploited or treated unfairly.
Even the research Emergent has conducted with on-demand economy workers has revealed that a sizable share—about 30 percent—aren’t satisfied and would prefer a traditional job. This group is larger—around 55 percent—among those working full-time in the on-demand economy.
So, yes, I understand there is truth to the reporting: There are problems that need to be fixed.
But there is a bigger truth that is not reflected in this reporting: Most on-demand economy workers have a positive view towards what they do.
Critics are missing two important points
Despite the emerging conventional narrative that suggests all on-demand economy workers are unhappy, the reality is different:
- Research on this sector—Emergent’s and the research of others—consistently reveals that the majority of on-demand workers are satisfied and prefer their on-demand work over a traditional full or part-time job.
- Most on-demand economy workers are part-time (79 percent according to recent research we conducted with Intuit) and are doing these jobs because they are very flexible.
The upside of the on-demand economy
Several recent responses to the drumbeat of negative coverage provide a balance to the parade of negative punditry.
- In his article, “A new narrative: The real motivations for working in the on-demand economy,” Intuit vice president Alex Chriss highlights five types of people who are thriving in their on-demand economy jobs:
- Those who want to be their own boss
- Aspiring entrepreneurs
- Displaced workers
- Part-timers who need flexibility
- Side-giggers looking for extra cash
- You Are Missing the Point: On-Demand Economy Debate, by Wonolo founder Yong Kim, stresses the flexibility provided by on-demand economy jobs. Key quote:
“Regardless of the concerns of policy-makers, litigators, and lobbyists around worker classification, the on-demand economy is here to stay because of its core benefit—people feel empowered and liberated knowing that they can work when they want to.”
- The New Economy Has 99 Problems and Uber Isn’t One, by Hire an Esquire founder Julie Shapiro, also focuses on flexibility. Key quote:
“The other UberX and Lyft drivers had a variety of backgrounds from students, insurance agents and startup employees to former restaurant and retail employees. Their reasons for choosing this on demand career option were similar—the ability to work when and how much they wanted, to not have a boss. They feared being “Instacarted,” if switched to W-2 employees—referring to Instacart’s recent worker reclassification that resulted in restricted and scheduled hours for a low hourly W-2 wage. If this happened, they would stop driving.”
As with any industry, especially early in its formative years, there are unanticipated problems and bad players. Coverage of the downside of the on-demand economy is justifiable and appropriate. However, such coverage should not be limited to the anecdotal examples that are chosen primarily to fit into a narrative that doesn’t necessarily match reality.
The majority of on-demand workers are positive about their work for various reasons. Those who are finding success working in the on-demand economy should have the continued opportunity to choose this path. Their story should be a part of the narrative of what the on-demand economy can provide.
(A version of this post appeared also on SmallBizLabs.com)