The Myth of the Sharing Economy

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I guess I should be feeling good about the state of our society. Sure we have drought, global warming, violence, income inequality, but there's a silver lining: There's a lot of sharing going on, and a new kind of sharing at that. sharing that will prop up our faltering middle class. There's ride sharing, home sharing, dog sharing. We're sharing all sorts of things. The problem is we're not really sharing. We're just renting stuff out, be it a room or a ride.

This reminds me of that classic George Orwell essay, "Politics and the English Language", in which he bemoans what he calls "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." He finds its origins in the political speak of the British Empire and the Soviet Union, but we all know it's also found in modern advertising and corporate America. Think about it. Nowadays, I'm not renting you my house for the weekend, I'm just sharing it. And I'm no ordinary driver charging you a fare, I'm sharing a seat in my car. Welcome to the new "sharing" economy, brought to you by Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not kindergarten and the kibbutz.

My friends tell me this "sharing" nomenclature is all played out. Its' all been said before. People are now calling it the on-demand economy or, even better, the "gig" economy, as in "I've got a gig driving cars at night." Sounds artistic.

Call it what you want, but its advocates argue that it will do much to help America's shrinking middle class The problem, however, is that the promises don't add up. Uber drivers have rallied recently in various cities for better wages, and reports show high turnover, few benefits and mostly part-time workers. Sounds like Walmart, not a recipe for a middle class resurgence. Airbnb provides a fine side income but it can turn homes into mini-hotels, without full-time employees with benefits. These contractor-based companies, when properly regulated, offer useful social goods and some helpful side money for many. However, are they really a solution for the problems plaguing America's struggling middle class? I'm doubtful.

But if they're right, and we really do need to rent out, I mean share, our rooms and get driving gigs to stay in the middle class, we'd better start worrying about what's next.


With a Perspective, I'm Josh Gnass.

Josh Gnass teaches history in Burlingame and lives with his family in San Francisco.