How Uber and Airbnb Created a Parasite Economy

An examination of more than a dozen companies reveals the nuances between gig platforms and their workers

Kaushik Viswanath
Marker
Published in
12 min readSep 14, 2020

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Uber and Lyft drivers demonstrate outside the $72 million home of Uber co-founder Garrett Camp to protest unfair wages.
Uber and Lyft drivers demonstrate outside the Beverly Hills home of Uber co-founder Garrett Camp to protest the first day of an “IPO cash out” and discriminatory wages on November 6, 2019. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Uber and Lyft’s high-profile battle with California over its AB5 law, which requires them to classify their drivers as employees, has driven the debate over gig workers and their platforms to a fever pitch. Marker sought out the perspective of Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back, to shine some light on how these companies really treat their workers, and how these platforms might be fixed.

Schor and her team collected data on 13 different gig work platforms including Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Postmates, Uber, and Lyft over seven years, and interviewed 278 different gig workers about their experiences working on these platforms in the process of writing the book. We spoke with Schor to discuss whether these platforms expand opportunities for workers or exploit them, and if the gig economy can disrupt the discriminatory barriers of the traditional employment economy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marker: What do you find most accounts of the gig economy or the platform-sharing economy get wrong?

Juliet Schor: Well, they tend to go wrong in one of two ways. On the one hand, you’ve got the boosters who just think everything about it is wonderful, and it’s all about how the technology is going to allow workers so much freedom, and so forth. Economists and the business literature have really tended to see just the sunny side of the street.

On the other hand, you’ve got the overly dystopian point of view about it, in the sense that the platforms have all the power, workers are getting exploited, and conditions of work are being degraded.

I would say of the two views, the latter has been more accurate. We have seen that borne out in our study of ride-hail and food delivery platforms, and to a certain extent, on apps like Instacart. But there’s two things about that view that my book and my research counters. One is, we have found that for people who are using these platforms to supplement their…

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Kaushik Viswanath
Marker

Previously: Creators & Marker @Medium and business books at Penguin Random House.