What does the "gig economy" say about our value of time? An examination of Mechanical Turk

Earlier this week, I came across this piece by the NYT, which closely examines the world of Amazon Mechanical Turk. I'd never heard of this work before, but it's a fairly simple concept--a worker can choose from a variety of small, low-paying HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) paying anywhere from $0.01 to $1. Many of the tasks are very easy and repetitive. They may ask you to describe an image in three words, or provide a hypothetical ranking of how likely you would be to contribute funding towards a crowd sourcing start-up. 60% of the tasks pay $0.10 or less, and the tasks are requested by a combination of businesses and academics. Over half of workers who complete Mechanical Turks report earning less than $5 an hour. Only 8% report earning $8 or more.

While all of this is very interesting in its own right, what really stood out to me was the data on the workers themselves who Turk. Amazon claims to have a workforce of 500,000, but outside experts estimate the active numbers are between 100,000-200,000. 75% of these workers are estimated to be in the US. Only a quarter of Turkers rely on Mechanical Turk for their primary income, however, 63% of workers complete tasks everyday.

So why would someone willingly choose a second job that pays significantly below minimum wage? The NYT article sheds some light on this by interviewing a variety of individuals who Turk. Many individuals cite aspects of freedom as a main appeal (no set hours, no uniforms, ability to multitask), as well as the ability to be paid during "leisure time." One worker claimed she would normally be messing around online anyways, and at least she got paid for Turking.

While for many I'm sure Turking is an important and reliable way to receive secondary income, I think it also says something about the way we value our time and labor in relation to money (and not just Turking, but many of the jobs in the "gig economy"). There are certainly more efficient (possibly even easier) ways to secure an hourly wage via a second job, but it appears that a large appeal of gig economy jobs is the idea that you are passively generating income during your leisure time. Earning $1 an hour to complete HIT tasks in an office at a desk job may have very little appeal, but if you can do it from your home in sweats while watching TV, suddenly it seems like a great way to casually bring in some more money every week.

So what does this all mean? Do many of us undervalue our time or overvalue money? Possibly. It's hard to say how many would still choose to perform Turks if none of them were paid (though I suspect the numbers would be significantly lower). My main takeaway is that we should be careful with how we choose to spend the limited time we have--it's the one thing we can't buy more of.


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