License to Survive
Recently, while enduring a flight to the other coast to spend Christmas with family, I treated myself to the Winter 2018 issue of the American Scholar. Its long-form and nuanced articles always draw my mind away from both crying babies and screaming headlines, and while I disagree with some of the views expressed in it, I appreciate its editors' focus on balance. However, one piece in that issue, "License to Thrive", left me feeling uneasy and it took me some time to recognize why.
The short article doesn't have anything obviously wrong with it. Ride-share drivers face all the problems I suspected: long hours, no sick days, and a fluctuating income. They're contractors — one-person businesses — operating in a oligopsony market because, while they may carry dozens of passengers per shift, only a tiny number of clients such as Uber or Lyft pay them for it. Given the risks and constraints, why would over a million people in the US choose this way of making money? The article paints a bleak picture of what happens when the gig doesn't work out, one that's familiar to anyone who's ever made a living freelancing, including yours truly.
I've had my share of failures when I worked on contract software projects. One time, my effective hourly rate dropped close to the minimum wage after I badly underestimated the time it would take to complete some work. Another time, I signed a project that looked great, only for the client to disappear for weeks at a time and then fall off the map completely. Throughout the fat and lean times, I also had to do the usual maintenance work: searching out clients, disqualifying scammers, and paying for health insurance and accounting. My stories are similar to others' like me- just head over to r/freelance for more.
The uncertainty in owning a small business is what made it really tough for me. I bet that the thing that tempted me into that work is the same thing that attracts people to drive for companies like Lyft or Uber: freedom. The freedom to work your own hours and to decide how you do your job. For me, that meant working remotely from home and enjoying more free time. For many of these drivers, I imagine it's the ability work around college classes or family responsibilities or the option to scale their hours in response to expensive holidays or visiting relatives. What good is a steady wage when your manager assigns you only 12 hours of work for a particular week or if you're forced to choose between work and college classes? If you simplify this situation into an abstract number, say, dollars per hour, then it feels like these contractors are duped into a bad deal. In reality though, since not all hours are of equal value to all people, a fluctuating income is the cost of flexibility and other non-monetary benefits.