On Demand and Our Time

What if you made enough money on a daily basis that every second of your time was literally worth money? Would you look at the clock, see that 30 minutes of unproductive/wasted time have occurred, and think ‘Oh, dang, now I’ve lost X amount of dollars’?

I suppose that in most jobs, you are paid for your time. But why are some people paid so much more for their time? And why aren’t we all paid for completed assignments and tasks instead of our time?

These are just some of the questions that I was pondering while reading FastCompany‘s fascinating story about the origins of TaskRabbit. The brainchild of Leah Busque, TaskRebbit is “a sort of eBay for errands; anyone can use it to find and pay a stranger to take care of the dreck in their lives, from cleaning dishes to waiting in line for a new iPhone” (Sacks, June 17th, 2013). Leah’s success rests partly on her combination of technical and communicative acumen, and partly on Silicon Valley’s love for narrative:

“Silicon Valley is a place of storytelling: Ideas and people thrive when they stand for something, or at least stand in for something larger. As a young woman with a compelling backstory and the talent to match, Busque has climbed to the top echelon of Silicon Valley society”(Sacks, June 17th, 2013).

But back to the idea of time and money – TaskRabbit and its competitors perfectly illustrate the divide in our society between those who are well paid for their work-related time and those who are not. TaskRabbit has succeed in matching those with the money to pay others to do mundane tasks with those who are desperate enough to take on these assignments. TaskRabbit has put a dollar figure on time. Take these three examples from the article – which are based on real salaries and real assigned tasks in San Francisco (see Sacks, June 17th, 2013):

If your annual salary is:
$1 million
Then your hourly pay is:
and that hour’s pay buys you a “rabbit” who will:
Organize your new home. (Project estimate: $493-$667)

If your annual salary is:
Then your hourly pay is:
and that hour’s pay buys you a “rabbit” who will:
Wait in line at the DMV to renew your driver license. (Estimate: $133-$181)

If your annual salary is:
Then your hourly pay is:*
and that hour’s pay buys you a “rabbit” who will:
Parallel park your car on a hilly street. (Estimate: $14-$20)

What I want to know is why these people are making so much money – what makes their time more valuable than the rest of the population’s time? Have they worked harder, had more education, or are they just brainier and more efficient than the average Joe on the street corner?

A quick peek at the statistics for wages in San Francisco, California, suggest that most people (34%) have 1-4 years of experience, and most have Bachelor’s degrees (7719 salaries) (Payscale 2013). Yet the working force for females (46% of population) makes $90,717 on the high end and the working force for males (54% of population) makes $118,570 on the high end (Payscale 2013). I’m assuming that those who have more experience and education make more, on average, but this probably isn’t exclusively true if you look at the nuances of these data.

What TaskRabbit is providing the to “rabbits” who work for them is essentially a glorified temp agency, with the additional element of allowing purchasers and providers to sort out wages through a bidding process. There are a plethora of other TaskRabbit-like websites which operate under similar principles: for example, Gigwalk offers the same service but at set prices; FancyHands provides people with assistance for a monthly subscription fee; Zirtual equips the average person with a personal lackey; and lastly, Exec provides house cleaning services to busy professionals.

From personal experience, I know what it’s like to take on odd-jobs to make a bit of pocket cash on the side. I have done everything from pet sitting, to being a personal chauffeur, to informal landscaping – all for very little pay in the long run. But why should I be paid more? My time is worth less than, for example, the professors that I have helped out so often in the past. They make over $100,000 a year in most cases (see this Maclean’s list). The $20 that I get to drive their child to school or walk their dog is peanuts in their yearly budget.

Additionally, the article in FastCompany continually references Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling The 4-Hour Workweek. To these individuals, time is literally permeated with money and the goal of life is “hyper-efficiency” and using shortcuts to become superhuman. Because, who doesn’t want to be able to do everything? If you can’t work at a high-paying job, be a loving parent, have a vibrant social life – what is life worth living?

This is essentially the mantra and mindset that TaskRabbit caters to; your time is valuable, so get someone else to do those annoying time-wasters. It appeals to people who are infused with the ethos of efficiency and the doctrine of social status. Guaranteed, most of the rabbits are young people struggling to get by in today’s economy – just watch the video under “Become a TaskRabbit”.

I don’t have solutions to or even (truth be told) a problem with this clear imbalance in pay. I’m just mildly uncomfortable with the questions about time and money that TaskRabbit raises, and I wish that everyone would think a little more critically about the narratives shared around success and status in places like Silicon Valley.

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