Like many entrepreneurs shaking up the world of work, Zipcar co-founder and former CEO Robin Chase talks enthusiastically about the myriad virtues of the “collaborative economy.” Unlike most, she also worries about those who will invariably struggle to make ends meet as things change.
“I have these two hats that I put on,” Chase says of her simultaneous embrace of technological change and concerns about what it may bring.
At the Global Drucker Forum in Vienna last week, Chase called for a “basic income” for all citizens—enough to provide a decent place to live, food on the table, and healthcare.
It is an idea with a long and rich history that defies easy partisan pigeonholing. Chase touched on the need for such a “long-term answer” in her book Peers Inc, and she is now becoming increasingly outspoken about offering such a safety net in scores of speaking appearances across the globe.
Chase is not at all a pessimist. She celebrates the way that companies like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have produced tremendous value by opening up their platforms to legions of independent app developers. And she is excited about the opportunities being generated by platform creators such as Airbnb, which have turned excess capacity—in its case, people’s spare bedrooms—into peer-to-peer networks that are now competing with traditional corporate giants.
Chase is confident that these new business structures are rapidly accelerating and, before long, capitalism as we’ve known it will be totally remade. “I see what is happening and the pace of what is happening,” she says.
In all of this, Chase finds amazing benefits. With each new platform on which people can share and collaborate, society wastes a lot less stuff. Consumers are treated to far more choices. And workers participating in this new ecosystem have a chance to enjoy more freedom, fulfillment, and flexibility than they do in many old-line occupations.
Yet Chase doesn’t leave it there. She readily acknowledges—indeed emphasizes—that many of those displaced from their current jobs by this oncoming wave will have great difficulty in landing new employment. Others will earn far less money than they used to.
“Hordes of people will be left behind,” she says.
Technology, meanwhile, is exacerbating both the pluses and minuses. For example, in the sector Chase knows best—transportation—she believes that self-driving cars will be fairly commonplace within a decade or so. (She is also the co-founder and chairman of Veniam, which builds and operates wireless networks of vehicles and of other moving things.)
Combine that with a system of shared vehicles, which are constantly on the move, and one set of results is bound to be wonderful: fewer accidents, unclogged roads, cities freed up of parking problems, and declining air pollution.
But another is troubling. There will be little or no demand for truck drivers, bus drivers, and cabbies (or Uber drivers, for that matter). Car manufacturing, Chase says, will plummet over time. Millions of people will be cast out of their jobs.
One school of thought is that most of them will get new jobs, some of which we can’t even imagine today. “People say that one door closes and another opens,” Chase notes.
But to her, that’s largely a “pipe dream.” Many will not easily find employment. And, as much as Chase touts the power of platforms, she says it’s ridiculous to assume that workers with limited skills will, in the face of such large-scale automation, be able to quickly uncover wholly new ways to earn a living by selling crafts on Etsy or plugging in to some other such outlet.
In this regard, Chase is an outlier—though not unique. Tech executives don’t tend to spend a lot of time discussing what some call the “precariat”—a class of workers whose lives are marked by incessant instability and insecurity. When the entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen was asked recently at the Fortune Global Forum about whether technology is exacerbating income inequality, he snapped: “Did I stumble into an International Workers Party conference?”
I must confess that when I heard Chase speak from the stage in Vienna, I felt like I was listening to Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, making a plea for a “guaranteed annual wage” in 1955.
Chase, whose position has been influenced by the research and advocacy of Scott Santens, suggests that $1,000 a month might be an appropriate amount for a basic income. But she concedes that in some locations, significantly more would be required for people to be able to obtain even the bare essentials.
The bigger issue is how such a policy might be paid for, and whether the public has the stomach for it. Chase is encouraged by what’s happening with basic-income proposals in Finland, Switzerland, and a few other spots. But in many places—the United States, among them—it’s virtually impossible to see how something like this could move forward in the current political climate. In any event, the U.S. tax system would likely need a total overhaul to accommodate the kind of cash assistance that Chase supports.
At this stage, Chase hopes that, if nothing else, American cities may be able to run some basic-income pilots, giving the nation as a whole a chance to engage in a serious conversation about the concept. “Let’s talk about this now,” she says.
With the collaborative economy, Chase is convinced—and quite convincing—that “we can have way more happiness. People can follow their passions.” She’d simply like them to be able to afford an occasional sandwich, too.
Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. The author or editor of five books, he is currently writing a narrative history of how the social contract between employer and employee in America has changed since the end of World War II.