DIGITAL DIVIDE

Uber and Airbnb really are for the wealthy and well-educated

The new digital economy is increasingly looking like it belongs to the rich and well-educated.

US adults who earn at least $75,000 a year are twice as likely to have booked trips on ride-hailing services (such as Uber) or rented rooms through home-sharing companies (such as Airbnb) as lower-income Americans, according to a new study from Pew Research Center. College graduates are also much more likely to have been consumers in the new digital economy than people with less educational achievement.

Low-income Americans aren’t simply rare users of services like Uber and Airbnb—many haven’t even heard of them. While just 10% of people who live in households with earnings below $30,000 have booked trips with ride-hailing companies, nearly 50% aren’t familiar with them at all. The economic gap is even more apparent in home-sharing. Only 4% of Americans making below $30,000 have used platforms like Airbnb, and 69% don’t know of them.

It makes sense that home-sharing consumers would split along socioeconomic lines. The core users of companies like Airbnb, after all, are leisure travelers, and you have to have extra money to go on vacation. Aaron Smith, associate director at Pew and the report’s author, says the divide is also common with new technologies. “That tends to be particularly true early on in the adoption curve,” he says. “People with less money are less inclined to spend it trying to test out a potentially unproven technology.”

Ride-hailing is a more complicated story. Across races—another demographic where Smith says socioeconomic splits are often apparent—usage is fairly comparable. Fourteen percent of whites say they’ve taken an Uber or equivalent, compared to 15% of blacks and 18% of Latinos. Half of users also say ride-hailing serves neighborhoods that taxis won’t visit, and 54% feel ride-hailing is a good option for people who have trouble getting taxis based on their race or appearance.

“In a way there’s evidence for both the notion that these ride-hailing users are fairly upscale, fairly affluent, have plenty of ways to get around, yet at the same time [the services are] serving people who might be underserved by the traditional taxi markets,” Smith says.

Pew’s study is a valuable addition to the limited body of research on “sharing” economy companies, which so far has tended to focus on service providers rather than consumers. The JPMorgan Chase Institute, for example, has found evidence of a capital-labor split in the new digital economy.

Americans working for “labor” platforms such as Uber or TaskRabbit typically do so to offset shortfalls in earnings, and are usually poorer than those renting out assets on “capital” platforms such as Airbnb. Those drivers and taskers also tend to be more dependent on their sharing economy income compared to people on the capital side, whose earnings are often supplemental.

Meanwhile, the one thing everyone agrees on is that the sharing or gig or whatever-else-you-want-to-call-it economy is growing, and fast. Which is the best argument for why we should keep studying it.

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