Baby Boomers and the Sharing Economy

Sarin, BizDojo Operations Manager, explores a side of the sharing economy rarely championed: its ability to empower older members of society that the mainstream workforce disregards.

One of the things I love about taking Uber rides outside of New Zealand is the diversity of drivers. In NZ, Uber drivers are required to be licensed by the NZTA - which means pretty much every Uber in Auckland and Wellington is a taxi. (Ed Note: as of April 19th, Uber no longer requires drivers in Auckland and Wellington to hold a commercial license.) In San Francisco, I’ve had off-duty bellhops; in Toronto, a film and television freelancer; in Sydney, I’ve had female drivers every visit.

This month I was in Sydney (again), taking Ubers (everywhere), and ended up in a wonderful conversation with one of my drivers, an older woman that I’ll call Mary-Anne.

Mary-Anne looked to be in her late 50s, graying hair, glasses, and driving a very sensible little hatchback. She got lost trying to find me. In short order, I found out it was her first day driving for Uber, and the GPS map on her phone was not playing ball. I suggested she try Google Maps instead; she was concerned her phone screen wouldn’t stay active. I began playing with my own phone settings to see if I could find a solution. It felt like I was in the car with my mom, playing the screen-adept digital native role to her appreciative-but-slightly-bemused older generation one.

I asked Mary-Anne what led her to Uber. She recalled her daughter calling an Uber one night, and being driven by a young woman, a student who took rides in her two hour break between classes. Mary-Anne, recently unemployed (whether by choice, I’m not sure), thought, “Why not?”. Driving for Uber promised flexibility and control over her own schedule. She liked driving, and talking with people. It paid. It offered her an activity that anchored her day around which other things fit. More importantly, it offered Mary-Anne a way to continue contributing to society despite being excluded from the mainstream workforce. And Mary-Anne is not alone: Uber and other similar companies have begun actively recruiting an older generation.

 

Like Mary-Anne, my mom exited the workforce over a decade ago. After being made redundant she spent about a year in earnest looking for another job; first in similar professional sectors, but then in the service industry, figuring that a role she wouldn’t have to take home with her at night could be a nice change. And, like Mary-Anne, my mom was met with radio silence after dozens of inquiries, ad responses, friendly referrals, and more. Both these women found themselves asking: after five decades of life on this planet, and over three of them spent in the workforce, did they really have that little to offer a business? Did life experience and people skills and perspective have no value?

My mom kept herself busy with volunteering, recurring short-term contract work, gardening, and renovating our house. Last year, she discovered Airbnb - and you can probably fill in the rest of the story.

I have always my fair share of reservations about the sharing economy, and what it means for workers who are not considered employees. I am cautious about embracing a framework that allows businesses to rid themselves of responsibility for the workers whose labour they benefit from, and the total lack of income security when the sharing economy becomes a substitute for a traditional job and people are left trying to piece together a living wage. (Back in 2014, the New York Times published this great piece on finding “both freedom and uncertainty” in the sharing economy - it’s very much worth a read.)


So, while I still think Uber and Airbnb cannot (and should not) be stand-ins for a stable and sufficient living wage, I have also recently come to appreciate the agency that platforms like Uber and Airbnb offer to people like my mom and Mary-Anne. Their generation is being asked to postpone retirement - as will mine - and in the same breath told that they have little to offer the traditional wage labour economy. When I asked what she valued most about driving for Uber, Mary-Anne replied, “The empowerment.”