The Hook-Up Economy

Once upon a time, most of us expected — or at least aspired — to hold lifetime employment at one company. Perhaps not in our first jobs — we’d play the field a bit until finding the right opportunity. Then we and our employers would make permanent commitments to one another, til death or retirement do us part.

These days, of course, we have at-will employment. We no longer expect relationships between employers and employees to be permanent. Rather, we engage in serial monogamy, enjoying each professional relationship while it lasts, but only committing to exclusivity for the duration of that relationship. In the best case, each of these relationships represents a meaningful tour of duty from which both parties derive lasting benefit.

And today we’re even reconsidering that level of commitment. Why have an exclusive relationship at all when you can just be professionals with benefits, hooking up for gigs when it’s mutually convenient?

If hook-up culture represents modern love, then perhaps Uber and TaskRabbit represent the modern labor marketplace, the so-called sharing economy. But it’s no more a sharing economy than transactional hook-ups are free love. That’s why people are increasingly describing it as the gig economy or even the next economy.

But I propose we call it the hook-up economy, because this metaphor exposes its seamy underside.

I have no moral objection to my fellow human beings exercising their informed consent with whomever pleases them. But lifelong monogamy does provide benefits for both emotional and financial well-being. It leads both participants to invest in the relationship and make compromises and sacrifices that yield long-term returns. In contrast, hook-ups elicit minimal investment from their participants. providing returns that are immediate but transient.

Back to the work world. Uber claims to have created tens of thousands of jobs, and it aspires to create millions. But a gig as an Uber driver is no more a job than a series of one-night stands is a relationship. In both cases there’s a transaction from which the participants derive value, but the returns are fleeting. A series of gigs doesn’t add up to a career, and investing in them doesn’t provide a long-term return. Moreover, with the exception of a minority of high-end professionals, gigs aren’t lucrative enough for people to save up earnings for a rainy day.

That’s not to say that we should rally against gig work — any more than we should protest hook-ups. Informed consent applies to all relationships, professional and personal. Marriage and lifelong employment may not be for everyone.

But let’s approach the hook-up economy with our eyes wide-open. We haven’t yet found a compelling alternative to lifelong monogamy, and it seems unlikely that most people will achieve professional success by bouncing from gig to gig.

Going steady or even getting married to your employer may seem old-fashioned, but sometimes it’s better to put a ring on it.

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