In the last few years, Uber has gone through a life cycle that once took successful companies decades to complete—from start-up to upstart, from pushy disruptor to pushy behemoth, from iPhone button to cultural icon. Uber’s executives don’t like to associate themselves with the “sharing economy,” the smattering of firms that allow average Joes to sell access to their fallow goods and services (rent my empty home on Airbnb, buy my open 3 p.m. hour on TaskRabbit). The company’s ambitions, it says, are grander. But for now, the vast majority of drivers are behind the wheel of their own car. “Sharing” is, to be quite literal, the majority business of Uber.
This puts Uber squarely in the crosshairs of a debate about what exactly this peer-to-peer economy means for the future of the economy. (Like all discussions that include the term “future of the economy,” this can amount to little more than rounding up some very recent developments and projecting forward 10 years with jaunty confidence.) Are these new companies creating value from nothing, or destroying the value of the formal economy? Are they inventing new, flexible ways for underemployed Americans to work, or are they contributing to the destruction of full-time jobs?
The typical Uber driver is a college-educated man, married with kids, who is supplementing a full- or part-time job with about 15 hours of driving a week, logging 20 to 30 trips, and earning an extra $300 to $400 a week (before factoring in the cost of gas and upkeep). That’s according to a new paper by Alan Krueger, the eminent Princeton economist who served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, working with Uber’s head of policy research, Jonathan Hall. Krueger and Hall based their research on both Uber's data and an online survey of 600 Uber drivers in 20 markets, including New York, Washington, and San Francisco.