Greg Lindsay's Blog

March 09, 2020  |  permalink

What happens to the gig workers first eventually happens to the rest of us.


CNN’s Luke McGee has a thorough analysis of just how badly the urban precariat class of gig workers – who have no option for working from home, no recourse for not working, and no social safety net – will get screwed by coronavirus. While many other sharp voices are in the piece examining their plight and what cities and governments should do about it (single-payer healthcare would be a damned good start), McGee asked me about the longer-term effects, and I obliged:

Second, what will consumers prioritize? Will they be perturbed that gig workers who might carry a viral infection are driving them around or delivering their food? Or will they be more annoyed at their convenience being disrupted?

And given the normalization of worker dehumanization, what level of sympathy will wealthy customers have for gig workers on the breadline?
This creates a problem for the firms who made this type of work and service possible in the first place, and for the way of life in the world’s towns and cities that have come to rely on them.

“The major metropolises in the global north and south depend on this huge pool of informal workers,” says Greg Lindsay of NewCities. He explains that a trend in “superstar cities” over the past 30 years has been poorer workers being pushed out to make space for wealthy “knowledge workers.”

“Certainly, the gig workers suffer [and] the knowledge workers suffer personally from inconvenience,” says Lindsay. “The bigger question is how the model changes in the future. Uber was working on automated cars and other companies are working on delivery robots and drones. Will this viral outbreak see renewed drive to automate the services industry?”

Views on this vary. While Harper says “investors are more likely to hire and fire a cheap disposable worker than you are to invest in more productive technologies,” Lindsay believes that “companies might see gig workers as the weak link in the chain and work out how to get rid of them as knowledge workers find it easier to work from home and come into contact with fewer people.”

All of which raises the prospect of a future where poorer gig workers are slowly squeezed out of work by machines and driven out of city centers by living costs, meaning the suburbs becoming more populated and vulnerable to outbreaks like Covid-19. Meanwhile, wealthy knowledge workers could live in clean cities with other wealthy people, being waited on hand and foot by robots.

“If you think for 10 years people have been waiting for autonomous cars, this outbreak might shift focus to autonomous everything else as people become scared to death of being around other humans,” says Lindsay.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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