What is the impact of technology on labor and today’s workforce? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Tech companies have generally fixated on increasing productivity and profits by automating work, and thus eliminating jobs. The gig economy is merely positive branding for the same impulse – to reduce the complexity and costs of managing real, live human employees. Fundamentally, in most cases (there are exceptions), it’s a way for companies to keep a lion’s share of the profits.
While the digital revolution has undeniably created new jobs, the jury is still out there when it comes to whether tech, long-term, is going to be net positive or net negative in terms of total job creation. Beyond this “numbers question”, there is another one about the general impact on the nature of work.
Tech defenders argue that this revolution is no different from others in history. One can certainly draw parallels to the industrial revolution, for example: powered by relentless innovation, it, too, created new jobs while killing others. What is different is the degree to which tech companies, and unicorns in particular, have changed the nature and financial underpinnings of work, as well as the relationship between employers and workers. Whereas the industrial revolution paved the way for a new middle class and lifted overall prosperity, the tech revolution has helped to hollow out the middle class and catalyze a greater level of income inequality. And no matter what many in the tech world claim, these tradeoffs need not be the inevitable consequence of progress.
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There’s no doubt that the gig economy has offered new work opportunities, additional revenue sources and much needed flexibility to tens of millions. In the developing world it has some additional benefits too, such as in India, where Foreign Policy magazine reported “higher relative incomes, more jobs, less corruption, and, eventually, a formalization of the labor market.”
But, as I describe in my book Trampled by Unicorns, overall, gig work is short-term, insecure, high-pressure, low paid and precarious, with few worker rights or protections. Indeed, the on-demand/freelance-labor model that companies such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Deliveroo, Postmates and TaskRabbit favor — which poses as ‘flexible’ and worker-friendly – leaves workers to fend for themselves or shifts the burden for retirement benefits, sick pay, parental leave and health care back onto government in places where there is still a taxpayer-funded safety net (while often these same companies are not paying their fair share of taxes to finance these programs). And while this new normal is increasingly being met with protests from workers, and is being examined by regulators, policymakers and in courtrooms around the world — the gig economy, in one form or another, is here to stay.