Shared economy: Many more Americans are participating, but why?

The first major study of the impact and scope of the shared economy found 72 percent of Americans have used at least one of these services. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
A passenger enters a Lyft Car in San Francisco in 2013. A Pew survey found large majority of Americans have used shared or on-demand services.

The sharing economy – Uber, Airbnb, Craigslist – isn't just a fad, the first major survey on the subject found.  

According to the Pew study released Thursday, 72 percent of Americans have used at least one kind of shared or on-demand service.  

But, data about the types of Americans who use them most (younger, more urban, and more well-off) as well as their different motivations (it's trendy, less expensive, or a spurn of capitalism) indicate the country hasn't transitioned from owning to sharing just yet.   

"There is a real spectrum of American usage and familiarity with new digital economy platforms," Aaron Smith, the study's author, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "Some people have incorporated a lot of these services into their lives in very meaningful ways. [But] a lot of Americans exist on the fringes of a lot of these services in maybe small numbers. In a quarter of Americans, none of the services we asked about they used or even knew existed to a meaningful degree."  

The poll – the first major study of the scope and impact of the shared and on-demand economy – surveyed ride-hailing apps, home-sharing services, and crowdfunding, as well as other online and unorthodox services. Of the 72 percent of Americans who have used at least one of these services, half have purchased used or second-hand goods from websites such as eBay or Craigslist. Many fewer, 15 percent, have used ride-hailing such as Uber or Lyft, while 11 percent have used home-sharing services such as Airbnb.  

“Usage is most prominent among the types of people who are already highly connected,” Smith told The Guardian. Those digitally savvy adults Smith spoke of are under 49 years old, live in a city or the suburbs, and earn more than $75,000 a year. The demographic that has used Uber or Lyft is even younger, under 30 to be exact. 

The survey explored why Americans choose these services. Ride-hailing users said it is less expensive and less stressful. Home-sharing users said it is easier for group travel too. Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociology professor and one of the foremost academics on the shared economy, expands on these motivations in an essay on the Great Transition Initiative, an online journal.   

Professor Schor's conclusion is that the motivations vary. For some, it's trendy, she writes. For others, it's merely less expensive. Especially with person-to-person websites, the absence of middlemen as well as low application fees keeps costs down. Certain participants have a "commitment to social transformation." She and her research team found "respondents emphasize the value of sharing and collaboration, and some are highly critical of capitalism, the operation of the market, and the business-as-usual economy." Ideological motivations, however, tend to move users toward time banks and food swaps, not Airbnb or Turo (formerly known as RelayRides), a peer-to-peer car rental service. Other participants enjoy the social connection these services create. And yet, the Pew survey found, many might not be comfortable interacting with strangers.  

When it comes to Airbnb, half of respondents said they not comfortable staying in an owner-occupied home. "It's a dividing line," says Smith. "There is something about staying and sleeping in someone's home while they are still there.... Maybe it's a little off putting for some people." 

It was no different in 2012 when the Monitor reported two women warned a Zimride driver they were carrying pepper spray.  

"Although [the driver] understood they took the precaution because they were driving with a man they had never met, [he] says, "I thought to myself that I was glad to have prescription glasses and that I better keep them on," writes Eileen Zimmerman.  

Nevertheless, ride-sharing and other sharing economy services have increased substantially since 2012. Even last year, a PricewaterhouseCooper survey found less than half of Americans participated in the shared economy, although 78 percent were interested in participating. Proponents, not surprisingly, are excited.  Yet, others say its growth underlines the importance of further regulation. 

"The sharing economy is changing views of ownership in the sense for workers to harness their possessions, their cars and homes, as money making resources," says Alexandrea Ravenelle, a PhD candidate at Graduate Center, the City University of New York, in a phone interview with the Monitor. "As with any change in the community, there are downsides. We need a strong mix of efforts from the government, from these companies, and from the workers for these services in order to drive the maximum benefit."  

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to reflect the name change of Turo, formerly known as RelayRides.

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