How The Sharing Economy Is Placing a Premium on Personal Time
There’s no denying that sharing-economy companies like Airbnb, Uber and Rent the Runway are making waves socially, culturally and economically. They’re forcing laws to be re-examined, consumer behaviors to shift, and market valuations to sky-rocket. It’s easy to understand why these companies, and the sharing economy in general, are causing a fuss. The industries they play in are huge and there’s tremendous opportunity to solve the dissatisfaction that consumers have with existing services. Is a 100 square-foot hotel room with the view of a brick wall and no kitchen really worth $300 a night? Does it feel right to pay 30% more for a taxi when you have to call the service every ten minutes, wonder when or if it will arrive and worry the driver won’t take your credit card? Is it wise to buy a $1,000 dress that realistically will be worn once or twice?
While much of the sharing economy is intended to have a positive benefit on consumer wallets, the emergence of a new model that disrupts a group of relatively expensive, established industry players is not a new story. It has happened in the education industry, the banking industry, the media industry and the medical industry – just to name a few. It is an interesting story, but not a rare one.
Arguably, a less common and often overlooked aspect of the sharing economy is the inverse trend: formerly acceptable free services transitioning to paid services delivered by strangers. The acts of finding a neighbor to watch your dog or recruiting a boyfriend to assemble IKEA furniture are being digitized and brokered to people who won’t roll their eyes – or mumble spiteful words under their breath at the request.
Companies like TaskRabbit, Rover.com, and Zaarly are pioneering this new frontier of the sharing economy, and are proving to be equally as disruptive – and they may actually impact our culture and society more dramatically by influencing our personal relationships.
To better understand why there’s a demand to pay for what can be done for free, you need to dissect the free service model itself. In most instances, there are two options:
1) You can deliver the service yourself; or
2) you can ask for a favor from someone else.
Now, it may seem pretty harsh to fire yourself, but for most people, there’s probably no shortage to the things they’d rather not spend their time doing. This includes driving to get take-out, paying bills, setting up new Wi-Fi and doing laundry. I, personally, am awful at these tasks and dread doing them. But it’s difficult to find an acceptable substitute, especially on short notice, that won’t create an even larger headache or take more time than the task itself would to complete.
When we ask favors from friends, family or loved ones, we are essentially trading in our social capital. This is an awkward exchange. It needs to be handled delicately and you have to ask yourself many questions. Can you complain about the quality of the service or make special requests? How much time and money do you need to spend to show your appreciation – is a nice bottle of wine enough or do you need to take them to dinner and come up with a heartfelt gesture? And how often can you ask before you become a nuisance and they start screening your calls?
Then, when we receive services as part of the implied quid pro quo, the outcome can be equally bad. Who enforces the fairness of the barter? If my neighbor has given me a cup of sugar, what in the world do I say when he asks me to mow his lawn? What happens if we are not equally in need?
History has taught us that these types of social disruptions can have larger impacts on how we live our lives. For example, women’s increasing participation in the workforce during World War II brought about the packaged food and day care industries– fundamentally changing how many families operated. The industrial revolution that replaced the “putting-out system” – an era when big work was subcontracted out to small, in-home shops – fundamentally changed how and where we spent our days and our level of autonomy with regards to our time.
It turns out, that for much of what we do on a daily basis, free is just too expensive. The cost to our psyche, time, and relationships is too high when viable alternatives exist. As a result, the inter-dependency of humans will continue to increase as we outsource more of our day-to-day lives to people that actually don’t mind doing the tasks.
Will we eventually live in a world where all my activities are either explicitly my own or they are outsourced? A world in which my laundry is magically done for me and ordered neatly in the closet when I get home? A world in which an incredible chef shows up at my door on demand to cook for me and three others? A world in which my bills are paid and scrutinized by someone other than me?
That world may not be that far away.