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Tipping, power, and the gig economy

Consumers are gaining unrecognized new power to shape the lives of people around them.

Power is the opposite of dependency. I learned this definition from the sociologist Adam Reich who studies Our Walmart struggle.

It’s useful and convincing: you have power over someone if they are dependent on you. Tipping, for example, gives us power as consumers. Waiters, or other service people, are dependent on us for tips, which are often a large part of their overall salaries, so we have power over them. Waitstaff have to make us feel like they like us, and, a secondary requirement, that they like their job. Surly waiters are waiters who don’t depend on tips and who make us realize that being a waiter isn’t always such a great job. Not that this entire dynamic is obvious to us every time we enter into a tipper-tippee relationship, but it’s there, lurking.

In fact, it can give us a kick, a real but short-lived kind of status in service situations. We get to temporarily play the part of the “little lord.” Some people exploit this role, demanding too much, asking for special favors, and enjoying having someone do our bidding. Others are over-sensitive to slights; if they feel like their status is being questioned at any level, they switch from little lords to little tyrants, demanding attention and extra work from their waiters. We’ve all seen this.

When you ask an American, we like our tipping systems, and we don’t want to give them up, even though it leads to all kinds of financial problems for restaurant workers. Power is part of the reason. And that’s not new.

But there is a new kind of service economy evolving, which I call “the gig economy,” but which tellingly has been described as “the sharing economy” by some.

If you hire an Uber or Lyft driver to drive you somewhere, the payment has become somewhat invisible, since it happens on your credit card via the app, and instead of tipping you rate your driver (although you can tip as well). In fact the “cashless and seamless” experience of being driven by an Uber driver is one of the selling points. “Hassle-free” is a commonly heard phrase around the gig economy.

But in terms of power dynamics, replacing tipping by rating doesn’t do much, since Uber drivers are entirely dependent on their overall rating to stay employed. You might object that the riders get rated as well, but let’s face it, the worst thing that could happen to a poorly rated rider is that he gets kicked off the app and has to use another rider app. The worst thing that can happen to a driver with a bad rating is he could lose his job.

We have gone from a transactional relationship, in a restaurant, to an inequitable faux-friendship.

My fear is this: the invisibility of the transaction makes us as consumers even less aware of the power dynamics than we already are, even as that consumer power grows. We have gone from a transactional relationship, in a restaurant, to an inequitable faux-friendship. The marketing of the “sharing economy” doesn’t help:

lyft

Why is this a problem? Some of the most important lessons I teach my children are how to be grateful, polite, and non-tyrannical to people who are serving us, at a restaurant or wherever. It’s part of learning how to be an empathetic person, and a balancing out of one-on-one human interactions which I think is super important. I want them to know that service is not servitude, and that everyone is a person just trying to do their best. Of course, this goes for any kind of transactional service, not just the tipping kind.

However, the first step in extending gratitude to people who are extending us a service is to know when that transaction is occurring. If every bill is magically and invisibly settled, then my kids won’t even recognize that it existed, and instead of gratitude for help, they might just think the person they just interacted with really liked them. Another way for my kids to learn empathy is, of course, for them to have jobs in which they experience the other side of the transaction, and I hope they do have jobs like that, although it’s getting much harder to get such a job than it used to be.

The first step in extending gratitude to people who are extending us a service is to know when that transaction is occurring.

When I think about the future of work, I often come to the conclusion that sooner or later, once the robots are doing lots of the grunt work and hard labor, the rest of us will be more or less in service to each other. There will be teachers, and personal trainers, and personal assistants, and life coaches, and people who hang out with old people, and nannies, and so on. Every now and then society will support people who just think – although they too will provide service in the form of essays or research – or people who just have loads of cash and just entertain themselves all the time.

So, maybe it’s old-fashioned to want balance in each relationship: instead, we can enjoy the “friendly interactions” of servicing one person and then turning around and being serviced by someone else in another realm. Maybe someday I’ll be an Uber driver, smiling at my rider, then I’ll meet up with my personal trainer who is extremely nice to me. Maybe the seamlessness and cashlessness of each future transaction will free everyone up to talk about politics, and philosophy, and what have you, instead of haggling over the bill.

Or, and here’s my pessimistic side emerging, maybe we’re watering down the appearance of power relationships because we have redefined the word “innovation” as “ways to make rich people’s lives easier” and we call something a “disruption” if a bunch of people’s job security is weakened and they need to rely on rating systems — and need to claim to like their job and their customers — in order to scrape by.


This article originally appeared at mathbabe.org and was reprinted with the permission of the author. We encourage you to check out Cathy’s other writings.

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