This past May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed what freelancers have been saying for years — freelancers, part-time staff, independent contractors, and all contingent workers now make up 40% of the workforce. At the same time, every month brings news of a new app that claims to be the Uber of another industry. Taken together, these trends are at the heart of the new gig economy, with some writers even calling it “The death of 9-5.”
So does this view hold up?
It’s certainly true that more of the workforce is employed on a contingent basis, either by choice or economic necessity. It’s true that apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb are disrupting the transportation and hospitality industries, respectively. But for every Uber-esque success story, there are hundreds of failed imitators.
Just look at the cleaning industry. There’s no shortage of new apps offering on-demand online services. For example, Lifehacker reports on one such app called Helpling, an online cleaner booking service based in Australia. You can find similar apps in North America, Europe, and beyond. The Lifehacker reviewer said the cleaner did a great job, but the experience was overall a mixed bag:
“Does Helpling provide the cleaning supplies? No. Michael [a worker with the service] said he had to buy it all himself, including a nice vacuum cleaner even though there was no minimum requirements from Helpling as to what equipment and supplies he used.
Did he have to go into Helpling offices for an interview? He said no and that he rarely had to check into the office in person. The arrangement between Helpling and its cleaners is essentially contract work.”
Whether the gig economy is better for consumers or contract workers depends greatly on the particular service in question. But can these on-demand dry cleaning, landscaping, delivery, and cleaning apps take over?
Lets look at the carpet cleaning industry. In the U.S. there are an estimated 40,523 carpet cleaning and upholstery companies, generating a total of $4 billion a year, and many of them already have online booking. An app might be slightly more convenient for consumers, but few people use a carpet cleaning service regularly to merit downloading an app for it, so an “Uber of carpet cleaning” probably won’t disrupt the industry.
Even the most promising technology has proven to be a poor competitor for traditional cleaning companies. For instance, the new iRobot Roomba 980 recently made its debut. The new robotic vacuum even “connects to your home Wi-Fi network, so you can control it remotely from an app on your smartphone.”
Still, the Roomba hasn’t exactly brought the cleaning industry to its knees, and for $900 it’s easy to see why.