Author Sheds Light On Dark Side Of Gig Economy

By Shelly Haskins Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Alexandrea Ravenelle's says her new book, "Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy," was partly borne of her own struggles up the employment ladder.

Birmingham

The side hustle.

That's the slang most used for work created by the so-called "gig" economy, where driven millennials have the freedom of going from temporary gig to temporary gig without being tied down to their parent's 9-5 grind.

It's supposed to be the next big shift in the world economy, though recently studies that have shown gig economy jobs exploding have been revised to say the growth has just been modest.

A recent book release by an Alabama-raised author and sociology professor, Alexandrea Ravenelle, may shed some light on why.

Ravenelle, who grew up in Huntsville and was Alabama High School Journalist of the Year in 1998, was a former teen page writer, then an intern in The Huntsville Times newsroom before going on to academic and professional success in New York City. She's now an assistant professor of sociology at Mercy College in New York.

Her book, "Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy," published in mid-March by the University of California Press, was partly borne of her own struggles up the employment ladder.

After college at the University of Missouri, she moved to New York and worked for nonprofits, started her own consulting business, did public relations and taught as an adjunct professor at more than 20 different colleges.

While juggling all these jobs, she began to get overwhelmed with all the paperwork and, to keep up, started hiring personal assistants from gig economy platforms like Craigslist and Task Rabbit.

"I thought, 'Oh, I'm an entrepreneur and I can hire other entrepreneurs,'" Ravenelle said.

Then an interaction with one of those side hustling millennials sent out by one of these platforms changed her perception of the gig economy.

She expressed enthusiasm at the new ability to make it on your own, and the guy burst her bubble. Not only was it difficult to make it going from temp job to temp job with no health insurance and no employee protections, it could be downright dangerous, said Ravenelle, who ended up studying the gig economy for her doctoral dissertation.

"He told me about being hired for an errand to go to a drug store and pick up someone's prescription," Ravenelle said. "It turns out, she needs it mailed to China, and 'Oh, by the way, it's a huge bottle of amphetamines."

We've all heard the stories about the sketchy Uber driver, but flip the coin.

"There's no information about the clients. It's very easy to set up a fake account, use a burner phone," she said.

There's an entire chapter in "Hustle and Gig" about sexual harassment. One worker, a chef, was invited to cook at a party, but it turns out to be a huge swinger's sex party, Ravenelle said.

"Workers have no idea what to expect and they have no protections," Ravenelle said. "If they get injured on the job or they face a dangerous or really bad situation, they could end up worse off," than before they got the "gig."

That's not to say there aren't success stories, and her book chronicles some. There are people making serious money renting out apartments through AirBnB, for example.

She classifies other gig economy workers as "strugglers," who can't make ends meet, and "strivers," who have stable jobs and use the side hustle for extra cash.

But for many, the gig economy, rather than putting the worker in charge of their own destiny, harkens back to the industrial age when workers put in long hours for little pay and little protection.

While the gig economy is filling a need, it being your own boss, setting your own hours and controlling your own income may not be all it's cracked up to be, Ravenelle said.

"A lot of people who are turning to the gig economy are turn to it essentially out of desperation," she said.

To end on a happy note, Ravenelle, who already has a toddler, was expecting a new baby just a few weeks after her first book dropped online and in bookstores.

"It's a big month for new releases," she said.

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