Jobs in the ‘gig economy’ are more in need of respect than sympathy

Often unseen among those itching to serve a cause is the social hierarchy created by one. Claiming yourself a champion claims another a villain, and a third your charge. There’s only one guaranteed winner, here. Trendy graduates on Fleet Street celebrating the emerging challenges faced by Silicon Valley’s ‘servant economy’ are pitying entire tribes of workers into class relegation; it’s much less clear whether they’re improving lives any more than the jobs that offend them.

Like all groups, those staffing on-demand driving services are a more diverse bunch than even the best-intentioned stereotypes account for. I’ve been Uber-ed around by the privately educated son of a Mayfair art dealer, a full-stack software developer, a Nigerian revolutionary, and an ex-fighter pilot. Another, nearing the end of both his shift and his career, was looking forward to retiring back in Sierra Leone, leaving behind his younger daughter as an accident and emergency registrar at St Thomas’ Hospital, and his elder daughter a fully qualified anaesthetist.

Becoming party to such insights should have been unlikely in the context of the reportedly nameless and faceless servility of these roles. Except such upstairs-downstairs parallels (👉 Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times) are reported suspiciously more often by those that seem to think they’re upstairs. The now-defunct but widely cited Doteveryone think-tank, for all its laudable stated intentions, did less to certify the dehumanising properties of the job than to inadvertently advance bigoted notions about its inability to convey status.

None of which is to say we shouldn’t pay attention to creeping societal changes to work. If we’re to see more of tech startups that demand a looser covenant between business and workers, it’s right to discuss what it means for the social contract — seriously, I mean, rather than with voguish outrage. Given that Uber, together with several on-demand delivery brands, now employs its UK staff — unlike most of its traditional analogue antecedents — one presumes focus will turn to more nuanced grievances. But in the meantime, incautious remarks about an Uber shift turning a human into some other primate denigrate the driver more than their role, and are guilty of a greater injustice than that they’re intending to speak to.

A little humility might better equip one to realise that those who’ve survived civil war, piloted a MiG-21, navigated the UK asylum system, or had both children enrolled with the Royal Society of Medicine, probably aren’t pawns in anyone’s game. And deserve, from anyone given to either, less sympathy than they do respect.

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