Image: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

How We Got the Always-On Job

The decade we got the gig economy, hustle culture, and algorithmic bosses.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US

In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proved to be false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, people and businesses both trended towards a less asset-heavy lifestyle. In Silicon Valley, startups found they could run platforms without the operating costs of owning key assets like taxi cabs or hotel rooms and still attract billions of dollars in venture capital. People, on the other hand, became less asset-heavy because they couldn’t afford to buy things. For example, US homeownership from 2010 to 2019 is down approximately 3 percent, according to the US Census. In a neat merging of the two, some people actually rented cars from Uber, via its subprime leasing market, to drive for Uber, in order to make some money.


Both of these factors as well as the rise of the smartphone have given way to the “always-on” job, wedged into our lives from both Silicon Valley and corporate America in the last decade. The near-ubiquity of smartphones, contractor-run business, and a recurring promise to “be your own boss,” has made us work all the time.


July 5, 2010: The first Uber ride

Uber’s launch marked the moment where doing something “at the push of a button” would become the template for countless startups in its wake. “Uber for X” became both a business plan template and a meme. Uber and startups like it allow people to work whenever they want, but unfortunately “whenever they want” means our new bosses are algorithms.


February, 2013: A Google employee presents “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users' Attention.”

Tristan Harris, a design ethicist at Google, shares an internal presentation raising concerns about the company hijacking its users’ attention and the distractions of consumer technology at large. His presentation noted that a handful of designers, mostly white men in San Francisco at Apple, Google, and Facebook, had an insanely large impact on the planet by designing addictive products. At this point, such criticism of technology coming from an insider was notable. This presentation would inform the Time Well Spent nonprofit, which Harris left Google to run in December 2015.


November 2014: Unemployment reaches lowest rate since 2008 - with a caveat.


In 2014, the United States boasted a 5.8% unemployment rate, the lowest since the 2008 market collapse. But as The Guardian reported, “an increasing number of Americans—800,000 more than last year—have taken on a second or third job.” The jobs being added to the economy were “part-time work, often at low pay,” which “boosted job creation in the food and drink industry and retail.” This means lots of people were working as contractors without benefits, or working several part-time jobs and supplementing their income with gig economy work.


September 1, 2015: A Class-action lawsuit threatens the gig economy model.

In a California lawsuit against Uber, lawyers representing Uber drivers argue that the rideshare company must classify its drivers as employees instead of contractors. The anticipated cost for Uber to convert its California drivers to full-time employees is $200 million. If other startups are forced to follow suit, the entire gig economy model is threatened, as it relies on contractor labor. Ultimately, Uber settles for $20 million and continues working as it always has.


February 2016: Hustle culture reaches terminal velocity

“Is The Hustle Culture And Mentality Out Of Control?”A Forbes contributor asks in 2016. As is wont in the Forbes Contributor Universe, the question is answered by another contributor, who said in 2017, if you want to succeed, “work harder than everyone else.” The contributor then explains, “the hustle mentality is more than merely working hard; hustling allows you to achieve your dreams.”


These sentiments, posted by hustlers, did not exist solely within the Forbes contributor network, but also on Twitter, and especially on LinkedIn, as revved-up sales and marketing people posted vague testaments to hustling, grinding, and multiple permutations and combinations of the two, in what BuzzFeed would call “Broetry.” We were all doing #NoDaysOff, hustling at our main hustles, side hustling, waking up at 4 a.m. to journal, and so-on and so-forth.


December 2016: Amazon warehouse workers reported sleeping in tents.

Public scrutiny towards Amazon picked up in the second half of the decade, as consumers began to realize the same company is running a significant portion of internet infrastructure, online retail, and is also streaming TV shows about tech-led dystopias on its streaming service. In December 2016, Amazon warehouse workers in the UK were sleeping in tents nearby because they could not afford to make the daily commute. As VICE noted at the time, “The incident throws light on the hidden supply chains and unseen labor of online shopping, especially during busy periods.”


March 2017: Temporary workers outnumber full-time employees at Google.
According to data obtained by The New York Times , by March 2017, Google used more temporary workers than it did full-time employees, (121,000 temps vs. 102,000 FTEs) showing that not only startups were dependent on precarious labor forces, but the big companies were benefiting, too. Later, Google full-time employees would stage walk-outs across the world to fight for better working conditions for their temporary and contractor colleagues.


June, 2017: More than half of US adults own a smartphone. Growing numbers of lower-income Americans rely on one for work.

In a PEW research center survey, 77 percent of Americans say they own a smartphone. The survey also identified “smartphone-dependent” populations: people with low-incomes, young adults, and non-whites. These groups, according to the survey, often did not have access to a broadband connection at home or another way of accessing the internet without their smartphone. People who rely on their smartphone to find a job were more likely to shut off their service for financial reasons or hit the cap on their data plan. These smart-phone dependent populations have an overlap with the average gig economy worker: low-income, 18-34, disproportionately non-white.


February 2018: A New York taxi driver kills himself, says gig economy ruined his life.

Douglas Schifter shared a note Facebook before the 61 year-old driver killed himself in front of City Hall. Deregulation of the taxi industry and the flood of black cars from Uber and companies like it had led to his financial ruin, he wrote.

“There is not enough work for everybody that pays a living,” he wrote. “I have been financially ruined … this is the new slavery.”

Schifter’s death made the suffering of New York taxi drivers impossible to ignore. One driver, Noureddine Afsi, told the New York Daily News, "You deal with the traffic, you deal with the cops, you deal with the passengers, and the prices are going up, and we're starving.”


September 18, 2019: California signs AB-5 into law.

By signing Assembly Bill 5 into law, companies operating in California will have stricter rules in how they classify contractors versus employees. Though AB5 is casually referred to as the “Uber law,” Uber insists it does not apply to its drivers. Just in case it does, Uber, Lyft, and Doordash plan to put up a combined $90 million to fight AB5. Similar moves are already being made in other states. In New Jersey, Uber got hit with a $650 million tax bill for misclassifying its drivers, and New York is “said to become the next battleground for gig worker law” according to Bloomberg Law. Many of the startups that made their billions (in funding) spent the last ten years convincing its would-be workforce they could be their own bosses - after all, they get a separate bathroom than real employees. The next years will be spent arguing the same in the court.