In the latest New Yorker, James Surowiecki has a mini-profile of Upstart, a service founded by former Googlers that sets people up to take investments that are repayable based on their future earnings. Here’s Surowiecki:
Economists call this kind of deal a human-capital contract. Such contracts sound like a libertarian fantasy—they were popularized by Milton Friedman—but they’ll likely become more common. Other companies, like Lumni and Pave, are doing similar things, and the demand is there, because the biggest challenge that young Americans face these days is debt. Student-loan debt is $1.2 trillion, thanks to the rising cost of college and dwindling state support for education. The average college graduate in 2012 owed twenty-seven thousand dollars in student loans, and people who go to graduate or professional schools usually owe far more than that. The average twentysomething owes forty-five thousand dollars. Getting the money to start a business, meanwhile, seems harder than ever. A Kauffman Foundation study found that almost sixty per cent of small businesses rely on credit cards to finance their operations.
New York magazine’s Kevin Roose uses the occasion of Surowiecki’s piece to talk about TaskRabbit, the platform where people swap quick, discrete tasks, like standing in line at the Apple Store to get the new iPad, for money. To Roose, the TaskRabbit story is one where we’ve destroyed the American economy and are now trying to make ourselves feel okay about our lot with cute bunny logos and gamification points where our 401ks used to be. “We seem to be forgetting that services like TaskRabbit, oDesk, and Upstart were always supposed to be stopgap measures,” Roose writes, “meant to take some pain out of a struggling economy.”
Except, they weren’t. TaskRabbit is, by design and by its self-promotion, meant to fill a different sort of gap. In its marketing materials, the service pitches itself as appealing to people for whom full-time, with-benefits jobs aren’t the end game: Students, retirees, people with sometimes-debilitating illnesses, parents with unpredictable schedules. If it’s helping them over, it’s helping them over until they’re different people, not until the economy gets better.
It’s indeed true that more and more people are finding their “job” to be an amalgam of different work experiences. The Freelancers Union estimates that one-third of the American workforce these days trades labor or skills for compensation from different sources. The benefits once attached to the notion of a job — vacation days, health care, retirement — you plan for yourself. That, as any freelancer can tell you, can be both exhilarating and exhausting, sometimes within the same five-minute span. The new economy is the atomized economy. That can’t be all good or all bad, though it is different.
Have you TaskRabbit’d and found it exploitative, a good deal, both? Talk about it in the comments.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.