Losing our jobs for the better?
The rise of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, crowdtransporting, crowdletting, etc., has transformed our economy. It has also ushered in the era of the shared economy. Previously marginalized people can now contribute, no matter how small, to all walks of life. It seems to be a fantastic opportunity for the world to access the untapped skill of the crowd. But what about the people whose jobs this makes redundant? Whither the expert?
With the exponential growth in the internet, we have seen similar growth in internet based companies and services. Many of these companies and services exploit the internet’s connectivity to be able to reach people who were previously excluded from a typical business’ day-to-day affairs. These individuals are often willing to offer their “expertise” in return for money, recognition or simply because it is fun. More importantly they are often willing to offer their “expertise” at a much lower price than an expert carrying out the same work.
This has led to the proliferation of business opportunities such as Threadless, Airbnb, iStockPhoto, Uber and hundreds more. These businesses engage thousands of people mostly on a casual basis, who are more than happy to make a bit of money on the side. However, for every flower each sharing bee pollinates, it leaves one less for the bees living only from pollinating flowers.
In each of the previous examples, Threadless potentially puts professional T-shirt designers out of a job, Airbnb makes Hotel chains seem uneasy about it pampering their guests, iStockPhoto shutters work opportunities for professional photographers and finally Uber is slowly but surely putting taxi drivers out of work.
Admittedly professionals in the respective industry have the opportunity to jump boat into the new form of sharing economy. It is an option but a very uncertain one. The sharing economy is often based on one-off opportunities for its workers. Sure there is money to be earned but it is typically not a stable wage and one that is not as well paid as the original job done solely as a professional.
Jump back to your perspective now. You are a consumer of these services. You now have unprecedented access to photos that were previously too expensive or difficult to find; you can now find a fully equipped apartment for your family, avoiding a poorly outfitted or ridiculously expensive hotel room; taxis close to you and on demand as well as T-shirts that are cheap, unique and with clever designs. Who’s to complain?
Central Tenet of Free-Market Principles
Just like automation before it and other related technological advances, the sharing economy is great at disrupting the job status quo. Although instead of completely removing jobs, it is making them more spread out and accessible. Just like a disruptive innovation, it opens up new markets or replaces previously expensive services with cheaper and often more basic ones.
In fact, this disruption of the expert can be seen as the hallmark of our society’s inexorable improvements in living standards. For example, in medieval Europe, guilds controlled the ownership of tools and the supply of materials for numerous industries. This prevented others from gaining access to certain knowledge or carrying out the work of guilds. These services included everything from doctors to bakers and granted the members of such a guild a monopoly.
However, according to certain experts, the guilds generated no clear positive externalities and it seems that industry only started to flourish after the guilds began fading into irrelevance. Despite the claim that such organizations maintain quality, granting more people the ability to provide services seems to be a good thing. This is actually a central tenet of free-market principles.
The shared economy business model is one of many disruptions which bring services to more people and at the same time opens up job opportunities for less skilled workers (think of the loom, Ford’s production line, computer programs, etc.). Although this time it seems somehow different. We are replacing expert occupations with new jobs that don’t always seem to be as attractive or able to provide employees with the wherewithal to survive.
So what is seen as an advantage for the average consumer has far-reaching implications for those employed in such industries. However, the question is, are these services benefiting the long term good of society, at a short term loss to those employed?
If the shared economy is similar to other historical advances for the common good, then maybe we should all start working on ways to innovate our highly skilled jobs out of existence via the crowd?
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Evan Shellshear is a technology and software expert working as the Point Cloud Manager at the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Centre in Sweden. His work focuses on turning cutting-edge research into successful industrial solutions across numerous industries. Connect with him @eshellshear