The Past, Present & Future of Work in the Peer Economy

I hear it a lot: "Sharing isn't new."

It's tempting to look for glimmers of sharing in distant history. Europe's empires tumbled like dominoes, save Denmark, which ceded rulership to the commons and is now one of the longest lasting monarchies in history (h/t Jeremiah Owyang). The French Surrealists valued collective meaning so much that they concocted the exquisite corpse, an art form still practiced 100 years later. Meanwhile, revisionists try to recast "mortgage" to mean "co-ownership" with a bank.

Hitching to handsome examples can be affirming. But more important than the sharing economy's lineage is recognizing its contemporary relatives.

There's a lot of action around this thing called…what? Collaborative consumption? The access economy? Peer economy? Venture capitalists have deployed a tidal wave of capital. Peer economy platforms like Uber and Airbnb have famously tangoed with NYC and DC's local governments. Cab drivers honked in unison outside of SF City Hall, asking, what protection do these ridesharing platforms offer their drivers?

From my perch at MIT, I'm captivated by the rise of the peer economy. Since the 1950s, the American Dream has been tied to salaried, full-time jobs with benefits. But in light of changing company-employee relationships, the recession, unshakeable college debt and a jobless recovery of the economy, Americans have had to consider pursuing othe work options with equal zeal.

We're at the very beginning of a new era of work. Our concept of work is shifting, and soon this 60 year-old paradigm will blend into a growing number of work options. There has been a proliferation of peer economy platforms—companies that enable people to monetize their existing skills and assets. And a proliferation of advocacy efforts to support them. For instance, Peers, which promotes the flexibility, supplemental income, community, and personal fulfillment of the peer economy. Collaborative Fund, a venture capital firm, just published a 1099 cheat sheet for peer economy workers confronting their indy tax status for the first time. Meanwhile, working groups like co:NYC congregate in earnest to advance the peer economy in their local community.

Peer economy companies are constellations made up of indy workers. In this scintillating new economy, "bespoke" is a keyword—in lifestyle for workers and products for buyers. Slowly the prevailing discourse is drawing closer to companies' obligation to workers and obligation to public interest, and the peer economy's possible place in an urban ecosystem.

But the conversationalists are right: Sharing is not new. The peer economy (or sharing economy, to be broader) cannot sidestep issues that less visible movements have pursued for decades. When independent workers build a company's brand, who deserves equity? How does camaraderie grow organically among independent workers, who are vulnerable to isolation? Does there need to be a workers' bill of rights (hint: look to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance)? Who is responsible for liability insurance? How do full-time indy hustlers secure health insurance? Through the Fall and Winter, I'll be digging deeper as Shareable's columnist on the changing nature of work in the peer economy..

There is a vanity in having conversations that are removed from possible next steps, and I want most of all to have a productive conversation. Companies, advocacy groups, regulators, cities, scholars, workers and folks like you and me are seeking answers about the future of work. It will take all of us, in a co-distributed effort, to discover some meaningful directions.

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