The New Addiction for Uber Drivers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This also explains why cabbies are so chatty.
Bryan Yune doesn’t really need to work. The 73-year-old has a nest egg and his wife still brings in regular dough. So why is he driving his new Prius around Mountain View, California, for several hours every morning, moving Uber and Lyft customers from point A to point B? It’s simple, he says: “I can’t not be with people.”
Yune is part of a significant cadre of drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft who aren’t getting behind the wheel for the money — or at least not just for the money. Whether retired and wealthy or young and employed, these drivers have at least one thing in common: a desire for more face-to-face time in their lives. Driving random strangers around is a chance to meet new friends, business contacts or even romantic partners via random interactions of the sort that are rarer than ever in a world dominated by technology. There’s also an undeniably addictive form of voyeurism that taxi drivers would recognize immediately. Yune and his fellow drivers often catch unfiltered glimpses of people’s lives, thanks largely to the fact that they’ll probably never see each other again. “The reason I drive is for inspiration and stimulation,” says Yune as he pulls up to a stop.
Of course, the majority of drivers for ride-hailing companies actually do care about the money. Three-quarters of Uber drivers said money was their biggest motivation, according to a company-commissioned report released in January, and they reported making an average of $19 per hour. Glassdoor, an independent salary tracking site, has Uber drivers making closer to $15 per hour, while SherpaShare, which tracks ride-hailing employees specifically, estimated that gross earnings per Uber trip were below $15 for every location outside of New York City. And that doesn’t even include Uber’s 20 percent cut, or fuel and vehicle costs that the contractor takes on. Uber is rarely a driver’s sole source of income, according to the company report.
But there’s no denying that a significant portion of contract drivers are older folks looking to make a buck and maybe some pals along the way. Seventy-two percent of workers in their 50s or older say they actually want to keep working after they retire, according to a study by Merrill Lynch, which credits the phenomenon to increased life expectancy, elimination of pensions, economic uncertainty and a desire among people to reimagine their post-work life. Uber reports that 24 percent of its drivers are over 50, while Sidecar’s drivers average between 35 and 45. Which all follows the general trend of an aging population: For the first time since 1948, men and women over 65 outnumber teenagers in the workplace.
The allure isn’t just for the elderly. Martin Dasko, the 27-year-old founder of millennial finance site Studenomics, test-drove life as an Uberer for a month. His findings? Driving won’t make you rich (after Uber’s take, he made a little more than $500 in his first week), but the people you meet are “the other hidden benefit,” he says. Dasko claims he’s met record executives, producers and fellow bloggers while driving. GQ writer Mickey Rapkin adds his own Uber cab confession after a similar experiment: “The job becomes akin to binge-watching a TV series late at night on Netflix: OK, just one more.”
You do have to wonder at the efficiency — rather, lack thereof — of meeting people who pile into your back seat. It’s a situation that turns everyone into, as Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club puts it, “single-serving friends.” Still, using technology to facilitate real-life interactions is nothing new, from group activity planners like Meetup to online dating apps like OkCupid and Tinder. At least with the economics of renting out your vehicle and your time, you’re on the clock while you sound out relationships for when you’re off it.
As addictive as they can be to drivers and riders alike, Uber and Lyft are still on precarious legal ground as long as they tenuously designate their driver-partners as contract workers rather than full employees intrinsic to the company’s bottom line. Shyp, an on-demand courier service, reclassified its contractors as employees in July, a move that came as many so-called technology companies faced lawsuits (Shyp CEO Kevin Gibbon stated that the move was made to improve service, not as a legal cover). San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón levied new charges against Uber’s faulty background-check system in mid-August. In September, a federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit from former Uber drivers who claim that they work like full-timers but don’t get the benefits of employees. Uber and Lyft didn’t respond to requests for comment.
For some, though, the job’s flexibility makes for a quick-and-easy fix. That’s the case for Constantine James, who revs up the Uber app whenever he’s between construction gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s in it for the money, but talking to people and hearing their stories — often bizarre, tragic or intriguing — offers its own fix of a sort. “You kind of get addicted to it,” he says. “I call it my Dr. Phil moment.” Then he’s rushing off because, hey, he’s got another customer.