New York has tightened its regulation of ride-hailing services such as Uber and other competitors. What will that mean for the so-called You economy? DW correspondent Anne Schwedt is looking for answers.
It's a few minutes shy of 8pm in the New York district of Queens. Sikander Singh gets into a black Toyota Camry, casts a brief look back and fixes his smartphone in the mount. For the 23-year-old Uber driver, it's just another working day.
"There's no traffic at night, that's why we like it," he says. "I don't have the patience to drive in the daytime with the traffic."
Singh came to New York from Pakistan five years ago. Following an unsuccessful search for work, he was told by a friend about Uber, who said he could make over $400 (€350) a day. All he needed was a driver's license for $1,000 or so, he was told. That's a lot cheaper than a license for a regular taxi service, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Singh passed his test on the first go. Only days later, he was driving his first clients across New York, his equipment comprising a smartphone and a rental car. It was his first real job in the city, and all of a sudden, he became part of the You economy.
Although the experts offer differing definitions of what the You economy actually is, the bottom line is that it's a scheme under which individuals create their own jobs. They share their cars, apartments, technologies or capabilities. You are your own boss and get paid as the assignments come in. What for many is a side job to top up regular incomes has turned out to be the only opportunity to earn money for a large number of migrants.
Traditional system breaking up
Richard Wolff, professor emeritus at Massachusetts University in Amherst, speaks of a growing imbalance between the power of companies and employees. He argues that while companies get more and more profitable and save money by employing cheap labor and machinery, workers get a rough deal.
"For 30 years, what the worker provides to the employer has gone up," Wolff told DW. "It's creates an inequality of income and wealth, which translates into an inequality of power that has been able to convert real, protected benefit and secure jobs into the uncertain, unprotected and benefitless gig economy or You economy, that you have now."
Wolff says freelancers are left without any social insurance. "It's horrible; you're now on your own, and the capitalist will make use of you and when they wish to and when they don't, well, then there's nothing for you."
He believes that especially young people who have been forced into the You economy tend to paint a far too rosy picture of their situation. "Sure, you have millennials who believe that this is freedom," he said. "But the irony is yes, you're free to move around the country in a way that a serf never could, but unfortunately you are also free to starve to death, to have no life at all, if capitalists cannot make any profit."
The economist is certain that the US is heading toward a crisis, warning that there are too many young people in the system with no old-age provisions. And he believes the country will sink further into debt, because the You economy doesn't pay off.
He goes as far as to say that "the system is not only in trouble, but it may well be that this system is now over," adding that "every other economic system was born, evolved over time and then it died."
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Work-life balance instead of super earnings
Multiple company founder Susan Sly disagrees. "I don't think the You economy is dead, It's alive and well."
Statistical data seems to prove her right. According to pollsters Harris Poll, 33 percent of US citizens have already earned some money in the You economy, predicting that number to rise to 50 percnt in two years' time.
Susan Sly works together with 400 You economy firms. She started her first business aged 11. "Millennials, their demand is for work-life balance," she said. "They would take work-life balance over larger salaries, saying that they would not want to work in the same way that the generation in front of them is working. They want to live life on their own terms."
Sly is convinced that millennials are not under any illusion that the government is going to give them living expenses in old age.
She points out that everyone can quickly become an entrepreneur with platforms such as ride-hailing service Uber, home-sharing service Airbnb or YouTube, with little capital required to do so, compared with what you'd have to shell out a couple of decades ago. You can do a lot of things from home and on the internet, Sly argues.
Tighter rules in New York
But New York has decided to tighten regulation of You economy firms such as Uber and Lyft. Only recently, the city moved to cap the overall number of licenses for drivers and imposed a minimum wage. The measures are to be tested for one year initially.
Susan Sly doesn't think the rise of the You economy can be stopped by such rules. "People are adaptable," she said. "People will always find a way and I think business needs less legislation."
"The landscape is changing and I think companies really need to keep up," Sly said. "People who are able to make more money, contribute more to the economy, and [any restrictions] are just ridiculous in my opinion."
Uber driver Sikander Singh isn't impressed by New York's new regulations either. He says being a driver for the ride-hailing service is an opportunity to earn some seed money. "My dream is to open a gas station with my brother."
He adds that he doesn't like the idea of having a 9-to-5 job. Looking at the deserted streets of Queens at 4.43am, he decides to call it a day.