Dependence and precarity in the platform economy

Juliet B. Schor, William Attwood-Charles, Mehmet Cansoy, Isak Ladegaard, Robert Wengronowitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The rapid growth of Uber and analogous platform companies has led to considerable scholarly interest in the phenomenon of platform labor. Scholars have taken two main approaches to explaining outcomes for platform work—precarity, which focuses on employment classification and insecure labor, and technological control via algorithms. Both predict that workers will have relatively common experiences. On the basis of 112 in-depth interviews with workers on seven platforms (Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Turo, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and Favor) we find heterogeneity of experiences across and within platforms. We argue that because platform labor is weakly institutionalized, worker satisfaction, autonomy, and earnings vary significantly across and within platforms, suggesting dominant interpretations are insufficient. We find that the extent to which workers are dependent on platform income to pay basic expenses rather than working for supplemental income explains the variation in outcomes, with supplemental earners being more satisfied and higher-earning. This suggests platforms are free-riding on conventional employers. We also find that platforms are hierarchically ordered, in terms of what providers can earn, conditions of work, and their ability to produce satisfied workers. Our findings suggest the need for a new analytic approach to platforms, which emphasizes labor force diversity, connections to conventional labor markets, and worker dependence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)833-861
Number of pages29
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Airbnb
  • Algorithmic control
  • Economic dependence
  • Platform labor
  • Precarity
  • Sharing economy
  • Uber

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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