The notion that any ordinary worker might build a career is a relatively recent one. In the centuries of agricultural work, before the Industrial Revolution, the closest thing we had to a career path was the trajectory craft workers took from apprenticeship to becoming a master craftsmen (or in some rare cases, craftswomen). Similarly, lawyers, doctors and scholars had long periods of training that built their knowledge base before they were allowed to practice on their own. But most workers—whether they were laborers on a farm, or sold bread in a bakery—didn’t have any hopes of significant changes in their work circumstances. Because most workers spent their entire lives in a single village, they were well-known in the community—the farmer in search of a new milkmaid probably knew the extended family of every available candidate. People trusted each other, in part, because they literally knew each other’s life histories.
Even in institutions with large numbers of employees it was difficult to work your way from the bottom to the top. Take the military for example; most generals did not work their way up from the bottom ranks—officers tended to come from the higher classes, while working class soldiers might at best aspire to become non-commissioned officers. For foot soldiers, advancement within the military relied on job performance more than just about anything.
During the Industrial Revolution, a massive diversification in occupations occurred, and with that diversification, the concept of building a career became much more widespread. Large firms needed many managers, and increasing mechanization meant there were many more kinds of machines that required a specialized knowledge base. Bookkeeping and accounting blossomed, Human Relations became a thing, and bankers begat hedge fund managers, analysts, and of course, lobbyists who fought for deregulation. While the ability to build what we currently think of as a “career” was almost exclusive to white men, there was an increasing sense that one might work one’s way up to the highest heights, from relatively modest beginnings.
The ability to build a reputation has been a crucial element of advancing in a career. Moving from a less responsible to a more responsible job requires some kind of skill validation—whether through certification by a state agency, by the personal knowledge of the person doing the hiring, or by validators that can attest to an individual’s capacity (think about all those times you’ve been asked for references, when applying for a new job—or to give a reference for someone you used to work with).
For what it’s worth, when it comes to my career, I own my reputation. My ability to get jobs, or consulting work, has been predicated on the work I’ve done before, and the people who noticed it—either because they worked directly with me, or someone else told them. When I left my job at SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania in 2013, I took my reputation with me—the union didn’t own it, though part of it was built while I worked there.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about reputation and the on-demand economy. It has occurred to me that a lack of reputation ownership is a key attribute of the on-demand economy in its current form. A recent paper by David Rolf & Nick Hanauer imagined a woman named Zoe, who cobbles together an income through Task Rabbit gardening, renting her apartment on AirBnB, giving rides on Uber, and yes, having a part-time job. In only one of those gigs—the traditional part-time job—does she own her own reputation.
The platform itself, in these cases, is the thing that allows Zoe’s customers to feel secure in hiring her. The more positive reviews she racks up on AirBnB, the more likely it is that I will feel comfortable staying at her apartment. Similarly, the more ratings I have as a clean, respectful houseguest—the more likely Zoe is to accept my reservation to stay in her home. Software platforms rely on having many users with good reputations—both as service providers and consumers—in order to provide the economies of scale that make them profitable.
Unfortunately, at the moment, any platform that an on-demand worker uses to secure work can fold tomorrow, and take with it the workplace reputations of hundreds of thousands of workers, maybe even millions. What recourse will workers have, when their reputation disappears overnight? Additionally, what worker, having spent countless hours building an online store with Etsy, will find it easy to leave that platform behind if the company decides to radically change their terms of service in a way that significantly disadvantages sellers?
Will I be able to sue Uber, to recover my five star rating as a driver, if that platform suddenly goes out of business? Can I take my reputation as an Etsy seller, and transfer it to Ebay? Sadly, that recourse seems out of reach.
There is a diversification of occupations going on in the Digital Revolution, that will, without question, be as transformative as the diversification that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. If Rolf and Hanauer’s vision is right, we might all be evolving to have multiple income streams, and little that is recognizable as a career, in today’s terms.
When we’re contemplating new ways to provide benefits for the future of work, it is incumbent on us to think about ways to protect people’s reputation on online platforms. The security of owning one’s reputation will be a critical one for both consumers and workers—but for workers, the urgency to protect one’s “work” reputation seems more urgent, since it is directly tied to one’s ability to earn a living. As people rely more and more on gig economy platforms to get to work, portability of reputation will become important as well. If you want a better understanding of how people might feel trapped in seemingly commitment-free ‘gigs’ when communities arbitrarily change the terms of service for their users, check out the forums that Mechanical Turkers have set up to talk about it, at places like Reddit or mturkgrind.com, or the discussion in posts about various on-demand driver apps at the Rideshare Guy’s blog.
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!
~Arthur Miller, The Crucible
If we’re envisioning new ways of creating benefits for workers who lack them, we should also be thinking about the new kinds of benefits that workers in non-traditional jobs need. While there have been considerable efforts to build tools for companies to track their brand’s reputation, and even some which incorporate the idea of tracking reputation by individuals (what’s my Klout score today, anyway?), we have yet to see a way for gig-economy workers to be able to track their reputation collectively, across a number of platforms.
Of course, as pointed out here, reputation as a host on AirBnB doesn’t automatically translate to mean that a person might be a reliable carpenter, as they advertise themselves on Task Rabbit. Similarly, in the world of my offline work reputation, my skill as a political organizer doesn’t automatically translate to success as a writer of thought pieces. However, there are certain traits that are necessary to success in both fields that cross over—for example, do I generally deliver work on time? Are my communication skills clear, in establishing & maintaining relationships with collaborators? Am I able to prioritize multiple competing demands?
One might similarly ask—what are the qualities that signal a successful worker can be relied upon to work in a new setting, providing a different service. Might Zoe’s landscaping clients care that she’s always late to her hotel desk job? If her Uber rides complain about the fact that her car is never clean, might that not be of interest to her AirBnB guests? And on the flip side—might Zoe be able to start a new gig economy gig more easily, if she has a sterling reputation for timeliness, clear communication, and attention to detail on all the other platforms that she offers services?
As Rolf & Hanauer have pointed out—in the digital age, it is possible to envision a world where every ‘employer’ who wants part-time or on-demand ‘employees’ in the gig and traditional economy are responsible for providing pro-rated contributions to benefits—so Zoe will earn a fraction of an hour’s paid time off, for every hour that she drives with Uber, works at the hotel, or hires out to be a gardener on Task Rabbit. It is similarly possible to envision a world where, along with that financial contribution, Zoe’s ‘employers’ also regularly rate on her work on that same shared platform—some of it on basic job skills like timeliness or communication skills, some of it on job skills that are specific to that platform like driving history, understanding of computer software, or ability to make plants flourish.
If the transition from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Era means that we’re moving away from having the kinds of careers that workers have enjoyed in the 20th century, we need to design structures that will allow us to have the kinds of deeply well-known reputations that existed for workers in the pre-Industrial era. But the commons, as we know it now, is no longer the village square—the new reputation engine for workers will have to be built in the cloud.