Occupy Big Business: The Sharing Economy's Quiet Revolution

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In the shadow of the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall St. movement, ordinary people are re-negotiating their terms with big business. They want to spend less, do more, and solve problems together. They are the foundation of the new "sharing economy."

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Big business is stumbling. Unemployment is still too damn high. And the middle class is increasingly just a memory. With all this bad news, where can we look for hope?

Kickstarter. Zipcar. Shareable. Etsy. Kiva. Prosper. Airbnb.

These and other "collective consumption" companies are part of the new economy arising out of necessity, as traditional businesses and government are increasingly unable to meet Americans' needs and provide basic supports.

This sharing economy is based on people coming together to create their own markets (Airbnb), their own products, (Etsy), and their own currency (TimeBanks). It relies on shared needs, trust, and the belief that the group is stronger than the individual.

It's possible to see the Quiet Revolution almost everywhere: from sharing cars, to online networking, and babysitting co-ops.

This new shared market economy is being driven by a quiet revolution: the millions of Americans who no longer want to prop up our faltering economy with endless and thoughtless consumption.

They recognize that hyper-consumption is no longer an option, both because it's not sustainable and because they have less money to spend. Instead, Americans are starting to spend their limited income in a responsible, thoughtful, and connected way. They want to feel good about where their money is going.

When President Roosevelt passed the New Deal in the 1930s, it was the most important piece of legislation for workers' rights in this country's history. For the first time, it introduced fairness into the workplace equation by giving workers a share of the economic pie that previously belonged only to business owners.

The New Deal also set up an unspoken bargain. Employees will work 40 hours a week for a company, and in turn the company will pay them a livable wage so they can have a piece of the American dream.

But that bargain started to unravel after World War II, and it was exacerbated by two pernicious trends: regressive taxation and de-unionization.

The wealthiest stopped paying their fair share in taxes, while workers lost their seats at the bargaining table. Owners reclaimed more of the pie, while their employees worked longer hours for lower wages.

You hear the echoes of this crumbled bargain in the calls of the 99% "occupiers." The bargain is officially over and many Americans are left to fend for themselves.

What will replace the bargain? How will we restore income equality and provide for the basic needs of workers? It's called the Quiet Revolution, and it's driving our new sharing economy.

The Quiet Revolution is not a vocal movement or a policy proposal. It's people buying local food, supporting community businesses, living green, and sharing resources (time, money, and products). It's people attacking the system by abdicating from it. It's people who don't want to work just to consume. They understand that the earth's resources - and their finances - are limited, and that the consumption path we're on isn't sustainable. They recognize that their decisions have implications for society today, and for generations to come. They are "360° people" who are aware of the ecological, societal, and financial impact of their actions, and who want to connect to one another.

They also see that businesses and governments won't meet all their needs. They know they need to build their own solutions to the challenges they face.

It's possible to see the Quiet Revolution almost everywhere: collective purchasing and goods exchange (Zipcar and SnapGoods), solving social problems (Open Ideo), aggregating information (Ushahidi), financial lending (Prosper and Kickstarter), networking and connecting (Connect.me), office space sharing (Loosecubes), teaching (Skillshare), and even child care (babysitting co-ops).

This movement is inadvertently creating a new economic engine that has the potential to reorganize our economy. The Quiet Revolutions' purchasing decisions could have a significant impact on what we expect from business in the future. 

We've been trained to believe that for businesses to be successful, they have to rake in as much profit as possible and deliver short-term gains at all costs. But the Quiet Revolution is creating a new social market ecosystem that values transparency and responsibility.

The new ecosystem supports social-purpose business, favoring long-term sustainability over quarterly profits. It offers new financial models to support social goals. The rise of B Corporations and social enterprises show it's possible to achieve both profit and social responsibility.

In a way, the Quiet Revolution is a return to the basics, with a focus on community, health, ecology, happiness, and balance. At the root of it is the idea of mutualism - people coming together, pooling resources, and meeting their own needs. The simplicity of it is what makes it so appealing: it's not led by government or big business, just a group of people with shared needs and a common vision.

That doesn't mean government and business play no role. In fact, their active participation in this Quiet Revolution is critical. Thankfully, some entrepreneurial business leaders, like former AOL head Steve Case, are investing in this new economy. But we need more engagement, especially in Washington and in state houses and city halls.

To flourish, the Quiet Revolution needs some government support, such as providing tax breaks, leveling the playing field, and creating incentives for innovative, non-governmental institutions.

Companies like Zipcar and Etsy have shown us "collective consumption" success is possible. It's up to all of us, including business and government leaders, to bring that shared success to scale.

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Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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