Is there a better way to see the future of work than to follow the drama that is Uber? The ride-hailing service burst on to the scene in San Francisco just about six years ago and nothing has been the same ever since. From how to manage a gig workforce through to how technology is destroying some jobs and creating others (more on that in a minute) Uber is the maybe-not-that-reluctant poster child for the story of workforce change, the latest instalment of which takes place in London, England.
For those who have managed to miss it, last week London decided to revoke Uber’s license to operate in the city. As always, when it comes to Uber, emotions run high and the London decision apparently brought out the strongest of those. Some (led by traditional London cabbies) are jubilant at the decision, effectively calling Uber a not-fair upstart staffed by criminals. Others called the decision everything from Luddite-like to racist. Customers of the ride-hailing service are not thrilled.
There are lots of pieces to the drama, but for me one of the key parts is this: the jobs of London cabbies used to be protected by the fact that that they had a knowledge base that could not be easily replicated and now they are not. In fact, the test they take to be allowed to drive a cab is called ‘The Knowledge’, and it requires memorizing something like 25,000 London streets. Not surprisingly, preparing to take the test can take years and those who pass it are understandably proud to have done it. As a system it all worked fine until GPS technology and Uber came on the scene.
With the advent of GPS, it is as if robots have replaced the taxi drivers. That is, rather than being required to know every street by heart, every Uber driver checks directions by putting the street address into GPS, and every passenger can do the same on their phone anyway. There may be other ways in which taxi drivers have it over Uber drivers, but the argument that cab drivers can get you where you want to go better has effectively been destroyed. Technology has de-skilled the function of the cabbies, meaning that if the world operated in a true free-market sense, the taxi drivers would see their wages drop and their jobs disappear. As Uber has expanded, London taxi drivers have undoubtedly seen their incomes affected, but the majority have struggled on partly in the hopes that Uber would just go away.
And yes, regulation does exist and markets are not exactly free. That is why someone gets to decide whether Uber can operate at all, which in effect means deciding the relative fortunes of Uber drivers vs. cabbies. With the London decision, the cabbies have managed a win for now but they have to know it is a temporary one. Uber (as well as competitors such as Lyft) is rolling in in more and more cities, and is proving to be a hit with those who prefer to pay less rather than more for a ride and to hail it more conveniently to boot. For sure, there may be regulations needed to ensure that Uber drivers are thoroughly checked, but there is little to suggest that the majority would be better off if Uber did not exist at all, no matter what London has decided for the moment.
And so the impasse continues and right at the moment cab drivers and Uber drivers seem to hate each other, in London and in many other cities as well. Then again, they should maybe think about banding together to map out their joint futures. After all, Uber all has never made a secret of the fact that they want to have driverless cars ferrying passengers sooner rather than later. As they get closer to that reality, neither ‘knowledge’ nor ‘GPS’ may be enough to keep any kind of drivers in cabs.
As driver jobs are eliminated, others will be created although job functions will likely come and go over the years ahead. Rather than thinking just about specific knowledge, perhaps what workers need to develop are skills in things like ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’. They may sound like buzz-words, but if Uber has taught us anything it is that the work world is turning on a dime and it might be best to be ready for the next instalment of the drama.