Meet The New Serfs, Same As The Old Serfs


Jon Evans


Jon Evans is the CTO of the engineering consultancy HappyFunCorp; the award-winning author of six novels, one graphic novel, and a book of travel writing; and TechCrunch’s weekend columnist since 2010.

More posts from Jon Evans

Once upon a time there were things called jobs, and they were well understood. People went to work for companies, in offices or in factories. There were exceptions — artists, aristocrats, entrepreneurs — but they were rare.

Laws, regulations, and statistics were based on this assumption; but, increasingly, what people do today doesn’t fit neatly into that anachronistic 1950s rubric. I’ve had the pleasure of trying to explain to border officials that my “job” consisted of contracting in Country A for a client in Country B, while also writing books and selling apps. I don’t recommend it.

This disconnect will just keep getting worse. The so-called “sharing economy” mediated by sites and apps like Lyft, TaskRabbit, Thumbtack, Postmates, Mechanical Turk, etc etc etc., replaces “consistent work for a single employer” with “an agglomeration of short-term/one-time gigs.” That doesn’t really map to the old-economy assumptions at all. And even relatively high-skill professions are now being nibbled at by shared-economy software; consider Disrupt winner YourMechanic.

I say “so-called” because, let’s face it, “sharing economy” is mostly spin. It mostly consists of people who have excess disposable income hiring those who do not; it’s pretty rare to vacillate across that divide. Far more accurate to call it the “servant economy.” (Not to be confused with the “patronage economy” — Kickstarter, Indiegogo — which deserves its own post.)

It’s not surprising that relatively-wealthy techies like me have created apps and services which make relatively-wealthy techies’ lives a little better, instead of solving the real and hard problems faced by poor people. But it is a little surprising that these apps effectively echo what’s happening on a massive scale in the corporate world.

Did you know that “the hiring rate of temp workers is five times that of hiring overall in the past year” and “The number of temps has jumped more than 50 percent since the recession ended”? Meanwhile, in the UK, “The median hourly earnings for the self-employed are £5.58, less than half the £11.21 earned by employees.”

The Harvard Business Review points out:

This “ephemeral workforce” phenomenon isn’t just American; the UK has also set records in the contingently employed. Something profoundly structural is going on. Even healthier economic growth won’t make it go away.

We already know how software will eat manufacturing (robots and 3D printing) and transportation (self-driving vehicles.) This new servant economy shows us how software will eat much of the service sector; by turning many of its existing full-time jobs into a disconnected cloud of temporary gigs.

In many ways this is inarguably a good thing. I may not think much of Uber’s CEO’s politics but I think even less of the insane medallion system that rules taxi industries across America for no good reason. (Anyone who believes taxi companies’ claims that they’re safer probably also believes the TSA’s claims that security theater keeps you safe.) I applaud the leveling of that demented regulatory wall.

What’s more, when the New Temps no longer require companies like Manpower to connect them to their actual employers, but can pick and choose on the fly among competing third parties, that too will be a huge benefit for all concerned. It’s entertaining to read Manpower’s CEO dismissal of this trend as “somewhat niche…I don’t think it’s going to take over the world” in a recent Wall Street Journal piece. I suspect that quote will sound fantastically dense in ten years’ time.

And yet this trend makes me uneasy. The slow transformation of a huge swathe of the economy from steady jobs to an ever-shifting maelstrom of short-term contracts with few-to-no benefits, for which an ever-larger pool of people will compete thanks to ever-lower barriers to entry, in a sector where most jobs are already poorly paid…does this sound to you like it will decrease inequality and increase social mobility? Maybe, in certain specialized high-skill areas. But across the spectrum? I doubt it.

It does sound like it will reduce prices…but, unlike Wal-Mart, servant-economy providers are rarely servant-economy customers. (As prices drop, their incomes drop too, keeping the now-cheaper services still out of reach; a vicious circle.) The people who benefit are, surprise, surprise, the techies, the professionals, the bankers, the steadily dwindling middle class. You know. People like you and me. And, of course, the companies hiring the armies of temps.

I don’t want to sound like a pessimistic Luddite; I do believe that this will ultimately be better than the status quo for most people. But it seems to me that — like many of the other economic shifts triggered by new technologies, as I’ve been arguing for some time — the vast majority of the benefits will accrue to a small and shrinking fraction of the population.

Is that inequality such a bad thing? If the techno-economic tide is lifting all boats, does it really matter if it lifts the yachts higher than the fishing boats, and the super-yachts into the stratosphere? It seems to me that the answer depends in large part on whether the fishing boats have any realistic prospect of achieving yachtdom:

Unfortunately, social mobility is actually significantly lower in America than in other rich nations…and so far I see no reason to believe that the combination of tomorrow’s technology and today’s economic architecture will change that. In fact I have a nasty gut feeling that the opposite is true, both in America and worldwide.

More TechCrunch

The spam reached Bluesky by first crossing over two other decentralized networks: Mastodon and Nostr.

The ‘vote Trump’ spam that hit Bluesky in May came from decentralized rival Nostr

Welcome to TechCrunch Fintech! This week, we’re looking at the continued fallout from Synapse’s bankruptcy, how Layer wants to disrupt SMB accounting, and much more! To get a roundup of…

There’s a real appetite for a fintech alternative to QuickBooks

The company is hoping to produce electricity at $13 per megawatt hour, which would be more than 50% cheaper than traditional onshore wind.

Bill Gates-backed wind startup AirLoom is raising $12M, filings reveal

Generative AI makes stuff up. It can be biased. Sometimes it spits out toxic text. So can it be “safe”? Rick Caccia, the CEO of WitnessAI, believes it can. “Securing…

WitnessAI is building guardrails for generative AI models

It’s not often that you hear about a seed round above $10 million. H, a startup based in Paris and previously known as Holistic AI, has announced a $220 million…

French AI startup H raises $220M seed round

Hey there, Series A to B startups with $35 million or less in funding — we’ve got an exciting opportunity that’s tailor-made for your growth journey! If you’re looking to…

Boost your startup’s growth with a ScaleUp package at TC Disrupt 2024

TikTok is pulling out all the stops to prevent its impending ban in the United States. Aside from initiating legal challenges against the government, that means shaping up its public…

As a U.S. ban looms, TikTok announces a $1M program for socially driven creators

Microsoft wants to put its Copilot everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before Microsoft renames its annual Build developer conference to Microsoft Copilot. Hopefully, some of those upcoming events…

Microsoft’s Power Automate no-code platform adds AI flows

Build is Microsoft’s largest developer conference and of course, it’s all about AI this year. So it’s no surprise that GitHub’s Copilot, GitHub’s “AI pair programming tool,” is taking center…

GitHub Copilot gets extensions

Microsoft wants to make its brand of generative AI more useful for teams — specifically teams across corporations and large enterprise organizations. This morning at its annual Build dev conference,…

Microsoft intros a Copilot for teams

Microsoft’s big focus at this year’s Build conference is generative AI. And to that end, the tech giant announced a series of updates to its platforms for building generative AI-powered…

Microsoft upgrades its AI app-building platforms

The U.K.’s data protection watchdog has closed an almost year-long investigation of Snap’s AI chatbot, My AI — saying it’s satisfied the social media firm has addressed concerns about risks…

UK data protection watchdog ends privacy probe of Snap’s GenAI chatbot, but warns industry

U.S. cell carrier Patriot Mobile experienced a data breach that included subscribers’ personal information, including full names, email addresses, home ZIP codes and account PINs, TechCrunch has learned. Patriot Mobile,…

Conservative cell carrier Patriot Mobile hit by data breach

It’s been three years since Spotify acquired live audio startup Betty Labs, and yet the music streaming service isn’t leveraging the technology to its fullest potential — at least not…

Spotify’s ‘Listening Party’ feature falls short of expectations

Alchemist Accelerator has a new pile of AI-forward companies demoing their wares today, if you care to watch, and the program itself is making some international moves into Tokyo and…

Alchemist’s latest batch puts AI to work as accelerator expands to Tokyo, Doha

“Late Pledge” allows campaign creators to continue collecting money even after the campaign has closed.

Kickstarter now lets you pledge after a campaign closes

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

Featured Article

Sonos finally made some headphones

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

5 hours ago
Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche Ventures invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €285M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road