At INM United, a digital tech company in Scott's Addition, dozens of entrepreneurs from across Virginia — most of them millennials from the ages of 18 to 34 — talk about how they do business and their aspirations in today's economy.
Leading the discussion is U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, the former governor who made millions of dollars in the 1990s swapping radio bandwith in the nascent cellphone industry. He's concerned about how millennials will endure what's become referred to as the Gig Economy, in which more part-time workers are supplying services that used to be handled by full-time employees.
There's more freedom, but fewer traditional benefits, such as medical care and retirement savings. Warner has been exploring what it means as self-employed young people try to make a living independently of traditional social safety nets. He elaborated on his ideas with Style:
Style: How do you see the Gig Economy?
Warner: Let's start with the demographics. There are 83 million millennials. The baby boomers have been pushed off the stage. You have got a fundamental shift in attitudes about work. You no longer have lifetime benefits. It's no longer "Where do you work?" but "What are you working on?"
What does this mean?
The benefits of the Gig Economy or the on-demand or sharing economy are your ability to monetize your time, your skill, your car, your apartment in ways that were not available before. The advantages are also the ability to have a variety of revenue streams coming in.
Where will they work?
I go to a lot of these work shared spaces. There are a lot of people working on their personal next big thing. At the same time, they are making ends meet. You don't have a workplace where there's a lot of social connectiveness.
What's the down-side?
There's no social safety net. They might be doing OK financially but if the stuff hits the fan, there's nothing in-between doing well and being back on government subsistence programs.
If you try to create safety nets you'd be criticized for crating new entitlement programs.
I don't think you are not going to end up saying we are going to reclassify everybody as employees. If you drive Uber three times a month and you rent out your apartment twice a month and you're a part-time IT consultant and you make stuff you sell, are you really employed? You are not a classic contractor. I've talked to these workers and asked them if they could make 20 percent more, would they take a 9-to-5 job? None of them said they would.
What's the new attitude? What about protection?
I think many of the companies or platforms realize that millennials want to buy from and work with socially responsible companies. I don't think it's going to be traditional protection from the state like unemployment, workman's comp or disability. Now, you may have a choice to opt in or opt out. You are going to have health care exchanges. I'm going to shop around to find the level of benefit I want. I think you are going to have to have something that's portable.
I think you probably have some variation on the hour bank so that for every hour you work you have some benefit or skin in the game. I think there may be other models. For example, you can envision that instead of getting a tip when you are paid for a job, you do a [credit card] swipe that puts it into a social insurance fund.
How do you deal with keeping rights open? Most people have a right to bargain collectively. How does that translate to an Uber driver? I guess you can quit.
I've talked to the labor unions and have talked about the old "hour bank" notions. If you were a carpenter and you worked for 10 different contractors, you as a carpenter chipped in and the contractor chipped in. But the fund wasn't run by the government but by a trusted third party — a union or social welfare fund. There could be a third-party platform that would run these benefits. It used to be guilds.
Is that difficult?
The thing that may be different now is that you may not have a single specialty. You may have three or four different areas you work in. Are you an IT consultant? A driver? A hotelier? You can be all of those things. I don't think anybody has fully figured that out.
What polices it?
What gives me some hope is that this isn't just going to be an opportunity for wide-scale abuse. There is transparency in the real-time nature of the Internet and the fact that reputations are important. If you suddenly have a whole slew of folks who are disgruntled and [they] ruin [the employer's] reputation online, that might be some check. … People are trading billions of stuff on eBay. That was built on the ability of the Internet to self-police.
To what extent does the Affordable Care Act do something for you?
I think it gives you that freedom to access health care without being connected to an employer. You've got platinum, silver, bronze plans in health care. Maybe we need a copper plan. It might have to include some new things. One woman I have spoken with makes jewelry with her hands. What happens if her hands are injured? You can't go out and buy disability insurance for your hands. We're going to need this social safety network.