Several weeks ago, I needed a ride home after some late-night drinks about two miles from my place in Washington, D.C. I pulled up the Uber app and entered my address. When the price on the screen popped up, I assumed I’d entered the wrong street, and perhaps the wrong state. I carefully retyped. But the same price appeared on the screen: $50.
That’s outrageous, I thought; $50 for a 10-minute ride? Then I kept thinking. Aren’t gas prices and inflation near half-century highs? Isn’t the labor market so tight that low-paid workers are switching jobs at historic rates? Isn’t nominal wage growth rising fastest for the kind of workers most likely to drive for Uber? Yes, yes, and yes.
But something beyond rising energy and labor costs led to that startling price tag. With markets falling and interest rates rising, start-ups and money-losing tech companies are changing the way they do business. In a recent letter to employees, Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, said the firm needs to “make sure our unit economics work before we go big.” That’s chief-executive speak for: We gave Derek a nice discount for a while, but the party’s over and now it costs $50 for him to get home.
For the past decade, people like me—youngish, urbanish, professionalish—got a sweetheart deal from Uber, the Uber-for-X clones, and that whole mosaic of urban amenities in travel, delivery, food, and retail that vaguely pretended to be tech companies. Almost each time you or I ordered a pizza or hailed a taxi, the company behind that app lost money. In effect, these start-ups, backed by venture capital, were paying us, the consumers, to buy their products.
It was as if Silicon Valley had made a secret pact to subsidize the lifestyles of urban Millennials. As I pointed out three years ago, if you woke up on a Casper mattress, worked out with a Peloton, Ubered to a WeWork, ordered on DoorDash for lunch, took a Lyft home, and ordered dinner through Postmates only to realize your partner had already started on a Blue Apron meal, your household had, in one day, interacted with eight unprofitable companies that collectively lost about $15 billion in one year.
These start-ups weren’t nonprofits, charities, or state-run socialist enterprises. Eventually, they had to do a capitalism and turn a profit. But for years, it made a strange kind of sense for them to not be profitable. With interest rates near zero, many investors were eager to put their money into long-shot bets. If they could get in on the ground floor of the next Amazon, it would be the one-in-a-million bet that covered every other loss. So they encouraged start-up founders to expand aggressively, even if that meant losing a ton of money on new consumers to grow their total user base.
Consider this simplified example. Let’s say that the ingredient, labor, and transportation costs of a pizza delivery in New York City average $20. If a company charges $25 for the average NYC delivery, it will make a profit. But if a start-up charges $10 for the same thing, it will lose money but get a lot more pizza orders. More pizza orders means more total customers, which means more overall revenue. This arrangement is tailor-made for a low-rate environment, in which investors are attracted to long-term growth more than short-term profit. As long as money was cheap and Silicon Valley told itself the next world-conquering consumer-tech firm was one funding round away, the best way for a start-up to make money from venture capitalists was to lose money acquiring a gazillion customers.
I call this arrangement the Millennial Consumer Subsidy. Now the subsidy is ending. Rising interest rates turned off the spigot for money-losing start-ups, which, combined with energy inflation and rising wages for low-income workers, has forced Uber, Lyft, and all the rest to make their services more expensive. Meanwhile, global supply chains haven’t been able to keep up with domestic consumer demand, which means delivery times for major items like furniture and kitchen equipment have bloomed from “three to five days” to “sometime between this fall and the heat death of the universe.” That means higher prices, higher margins, fewer discounts, and longer wait times for a microgeneration of yuppies used to low prices and instant deliveries. The golden age of bougie on-demand urban-tech discounting has come to a close.
I should underscore that the old ways were made possible by an era of lower demand and weaker labor markets, which was not a winning combination for most workers. Many people drove an Uber or delivered Thai food because they didn’t have competing job offers that would clearly pay more per week. Today, job openings are historically plentiful and nominal wages are rising fastest for low-income workers. That virtuous adjustment has shown up in higher Uber and DoorDash prices.
This isn’t the end of the story. With inflation raging, the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates several more times in the next six months, and could tip the U.S. economy into a recession. If that happens, oil prices will likely fall and rising unemployment could put more Uber drivers back on the road. At that point, ride-share prices would fall again.
But the heavily discounted prices of the 2010s aren’t coming back. The Millennial Consumer Subsidy is over, and for the foreseeable future, metro residents will have to go about living the old-fashioned way: by paying what things actually cost.