- Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy by Alexandra Ravenelle
By Alexandra Ravenelle
University of California Press, 2019. 288 pages. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520300569/hustle-and-gig
We know that contemporary workers face changes in the workplace driven by rapid increased in technical efficiencies (Gomes 2019), decreased expectations of loyalty between workers and employers (Sweet and Meiksins 2015), and weakened policies and rules governing the workplace and worker rights (Kalleberg 2015). Together, these forces are reshaping the ways in which people are pursuing work; altering the ways they think about employment and charting a path of greater precarity. Against this backdrop, the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are playing central roles. For example, advancements in connectivity (e.g., internet infrastructure and access), software (e.g., platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and others), and devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets) has yielded a new work ecosystem that is increasingly technologically-reliant (e.g., Sawyer, Crowston, and Wigand 2014).
Supporters argue that this new economic movement, alternatively described as the on-demand, platform or gig economy, will build community, reverse economic inequality, stop ecological destruction, enhance worker rights, empower the poor, and bring entrepreneurship to the masses (Mathew 2014; Botsman and Rogers 2010). Enter Alexandria Ravenelle's book, which explores the contradiction between the lofty promises of the gig economy and the lived experiences of workers. Ravenelle takes a critical perspective that exams the costs and benefits of this new movement. Throughout the book, Ravenelle makes the case that this new economic movement is recreating the same labor issues first seen in the 1800s and early 1900s—unsafe working conditions; lack of workplace protections around discrimination and sexual harassment; and strong barriers to unionization.
Ravenelle draws on evidence from 78 participant driven ethnographic interviews. Study participants were generally diverse racially, but skewed male (68 percent) which is common with many gig economy studies. With dozens of different platform types to choose workers from, platform selection was a key methodological consideration. Study participants were drawn from four different platforms—Uber, TaskRabbit, Airbnb, and Kitchensurfing. Ravenelle argues these platforms illustrate the diversity of business services available. In addition, they were chosen as they highlight different components in which she felt were important—skill level, capital investment. Using her rich data she observes three discernable gig worker ideal types. The first, "Success Stories" are those who have used the gig economy to create the life they want—they are their own bosses, control their own schedule, and are financially successful. The second, "Strugglers" are those workers who turned to the gig economy as a last resort. They can't make ends meet and look to the gig economy for help. Finally, "Strivers" are workers who have stable jobs and use the gig economy for extra cash.
Hustle and Gig is topically organized and one of the most important contributions comes early with the discussion of what the sharing economy is, how it's different and identical to other types of precarious work. With a lack of consensus among scholars on how to define gig work, Hustle and Gig demarcates the sharing economy "as a collection of app-based technologies that focus on the lending/renting of assets or services either for profit or for higher good." While the book's focus is workers, the definitional focus on assets weakens its ability to make broader assertions to other types of freelance or gig workers. After outlining the sharing economy, Hustle and Gig pivots deeply into the lived experiences of Strugglers, Strivers and Success Stories. Ravenelle also weaves the history of American labor and the development of the labor movement towards greater worker rights and workplace safety within the context of workers today. Using rich qualitative examples, Hustle and Gig shows how sharing economy workers and moving "forward to the past"; with a legal classification that does not afford them many of the protections established earlier in the labor movements. Next, Hustle and Gig moves into more uncharted territory within the literature, sexual harassment and crime within the context of gig work. The salacious examples used...