One of the classic benefits of technology is flexibility. It lowers the transaction costs on various exchanges, meaning things that were once “not worth it” cross into the “worth it” category. In a world where things must be printed on paper, it’s not economically viable to share your random thoughts with a few hundred people. In the age of blogging, why not?
We are now starting to see the same thing in the labor market. About three-and-a-half years ago, I kept trying (unsuccessfully) to sell an article called “Cutting Coupons? Not in the Craigslist Economy.” The gist was that most personal finance advice was premised on the idea that people can’t change their incomes. Your job is your job, and unless you’re going to get a second official job, or another household member will enter the labor force with an official job, your income is what it is. At one point that was true, because the casual labor market was quite underdeveloped. But then sites like Craigslist came along, which introduced the gig economy. People can do one-off tasks whenever they have time to kill (or need more cash) and people with extra work can offload it without creating an official job or going through the “not worth it” work of, say, posting flyers on telephone poles and Laundromat bulletin boards. (The fact that most of this operates outside the reaches of the IRS also lowers transaction costs, but casual labor like babysitting and snow shoveling almost always has, so I don’t really address that idea much).
The net result of this is that people can outsource many more tasks than before — freeing up time to focus on core competencies — and that creates opportunities for income generation for other folks. While Craigslist was an early player in the microlabor market, now we’re seeing specific sites for gigs. TaskRabbit, for instance, is the subject of a Wall Street Journal feature today. The paper reports on some folks earning $10,000 per year doing various tasks during time they might otherwise just be posting on Facebook. Of course, $10k isn’t going to massively change someone’s standard of living. But it’s more than most people will save with coupons.
Most of the gigs are the usual ones — administrative work, running errands, organizing events. But others are more intriguing (like showing up with a fishing pole and a magnet to help someone get his keys out of storm drain). And TaskRabbit puts in the value-added service of running background checks on its rabbits, so people are a bit more open to the idea of having some random individual show up in your office.
I predict that, with a lot of underemployment and an increasingly tech-savvy population, microlabor will be a real growth industry in the future,
What kinds of tasks would you like to offload? Which kinds of skills would you ever think of offering as a way to generate extra cash?