Opinion: The Gig Economy, Americans and The Future

Ultimately the gig economy, even as it uses the latest technology, represents something of a devolution of labor. Although widely associated as “progressive,” the arbiters of the gig economy are, perhaps unconsciously, recreating the conditions that led to the impoverishment of the peasants and mechanics — replaced by slaves — at the end of the Roman Republic, or what befell artisans whose livelihoods were destroyed in the 19th century by machines.

This is very different from the working class we have known since the 1940s, many of whom enjoyed stable working conditions, decent pensions and became homeowners. Able to work enough to perhaps pay their rent, most gig-ers may never earn enough to buy a home or start a business. In this respect these workers resemble increasingly high-tech version of serfs, free legally but locked in a system that offers little hope for upward mobility. They may tout the independence that the gig jobs give them, notes one observer, but there’s “an algorithm in control.”

And longer term, at least for many jobs, only the algorithm will survive. People may still work, at least on occasion, but hardly enough to support themselves, much less a family. This is one reason why so many high-tech executives favor a guaranteed national wage to keep the peasants away from their pitch forks.

Already, according to one poll, nearly half of Americans support up to a $2,000-a-month stipend for the unemployed or underemployed. Soon we can share a future that all but guarantees lucre beyond the wildest imagination for the handful who are on the other side of the computer interface, but leave most of us dependent on the kindness, or enlightened self-interest, of our masters.

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