Especially if you live in a bigger city, you might have been been hearing a lot about the “sharing economy” — the all-encompassing name given to the economic system propped up by a set of services that are popping up for people to share and monetize their private assets, from their apartments with Airbnb to their cars with Lyft. There is a ton of excitement about it out of the Silicon Valley, and “sharing economy” evangelizers appear to see this as a disruption of current economies and cash flows — a democratization, a decentralization of wealth and power. But is that really the case? And where do structural factors like race and gender fit in?
This illustrated article by Susie Cagle argues that instead of “disrupting” current economic patterns, the so-called sharing economy in fact tends to fall in line with other neoliberal economic developments. (This video is a great, intersectional intro to neoliberalism, should you need one.)
Across the U.S., high costs of living are driving more of the employed toward “side hustles,” i.e. unprotected freelance work, the kind fostered by the sharing economy. Where workers don’t have the start-up investments necessary to participate — the cars, homes, kitchens to rent — then they can just rent those too. Lyft’s new luxury service is aimed at encouraging non-car owners to drive for the company, giving them a lease option on impractical “custom” “premium” Ford Explorers.
The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. “Sharing” companies are not embarrassed by this — it appears to be a point of pride.
In short, she argues that this is an economic system that actually preys on the economic scarcity that comes as social policies move wealth and resources from the poor and working classes upward toward the wealthy. At the same time, it puts workers outside of the hard-won protections of the early 20th century labor movement.
So what does this mean in terms of gender and race? Well, we know that the pay gap for women remains very real, and that women of color earn the least to the white man’s dollar. We know that the recession has been the hardest on people of color. We know that queer folks are disproportionately poor, and we know that trans and gender non-conforming folks report higher rates of poverty and face twice the rate of unemployment than the general population. So the sharing economy, with its decentralization of power and resources, could really stand to benefit these populations, right?
Under the utopian version of the sharing economy, populations that could really use the extra cash could do so with the resources that they already have. But Cagle argues that the the sharing economy replicates old patterns of privileged access for some and denial for others, and that the benefits that the big players in the sharing economy are getting are not trickling down to the folks running home businesses “knitting scarves and baking pies without traditional employment safety nets or the corporate muscle of Big Sharing.” I’m gonna take a wild guess here and say that women are gonna be over-represented in those arenas.
And perhaps most importantly, as labor researcher Veena Dubal suggests in the illustration above, the root issue here goes unaddressed. Why is housing so expensive that people have to rent out their rooms to make rent? Why is employment so inflexible and unfriendly to families that parents must look to unregulated areas of employment to set the kinds of hours that allow them to raise their kids? Why are traditional avenues of employment so unavailable to trans and gender non-conforming folks that they are forced into a dozen side hustles?
The root cause solutions to the issues above lie in true systemic change – a combination of culture shifts and policy changes that recreate societies into ones that value and protect all lives. Surely we must not be lured by individualistic solutions.
Verónica is an immigrant queer rabble-rouser with a lot of opinions.