The Sharing Economy: It’s Not Just for Hipsters Anymore

Empyrion Wealth Sharing Economy Kimberly Foss

If you’re like me, when you think of Uber, Kickstarter, or TaskRabbit, you think of twenty-somethings sitting in a coffee bar, glued to their smartphones or tablets. Well, think again. It turns out that seniors—and especially the tidal wave of Baby Boomers now hitting their retirement years—may be the fastest-growing demographic for entrepreneurs benefitting from the “sharing economy”: the massive and growing Internet-driven marketplace for the sharing of underutilized assets, typified by apps like Airbnb, Uber, GoFundMe, and others.

For example, in 2015, AARP, through its Life Reimagined program, announced a partnership with Uber focused on recruiting older drivers for the ride-sharing service. With exploding demand for Uber’s services, and with large numbers of younger Boomers sidelined by the Great Recession and other economic challenges, the partnership aimed at a win-win, pairing retired or part-time vehicle owners in their 50s and 60s with persons needing to get from Point A to Point B and willing to pay for the service. As Adam Sohn, vice president of strategic initiatives at Life Reimagined put it, “The shared economy is offering people an opportunity to … be empowered to make money and be their own bosses.”

And the opportunities go far beyond renting out a spare bedroom on Airbnb or working as a pet-sitter with (though many seniors report making tidy incomes from both of these services, supplementing their pension and Social Security income). For example, retired educators can sign up through online hubs like Chegg or WyzAnt and generate income by helping users—either online or in-person—with homework or other learning tasks. A retiree with good handyman-type skills can create a profile on TaskRabbit and earn as much as $6,000 per month—depending on how often he or she wants to work—from doing simple chores like painting, cleaning, or even assembling someone’s newest piece of Ikea furniture. Retired healthcare workers can be ideal candidates for, which matches persons willing to perform certain caregiving tasks with families and individuals who need such services.

These peer-to-peer services try to make commerce as easy as possible for both user and vendor. For a small percentage of the transaction, they typically take care of all payments, and many require background screening for both providers and users. Airbnb, for example, provides a $1 million liability policy to cover most mishaps that can occur during a lodging rental. These features also make things easier and more worry-free for many seniors who are looking to supplement retirement incomes by monetizing spare bedrooms, vehicles, or personal time.

Notwithstanding all the positives, some concerns loom on the horizon. One big unknown involves the evolution of the regulatory environment. Expected to be worth over $300 billion within the next few years, the sharing economy seems likely to be a target for increased government oversight. Other seniors are worried by the prospect of having previously unknown persons in their homes or vehicles. This is not surprising, since seniors are frequent targets of various scams and crimes. Also, clashes between enterprises like Uber and Lyft on the one side and traditional—usually unionized—taxi services on the other have highlighted the questions surrounding fair trade and labor practices in the sharing economy. While seniors may be eager for the extra income they can earn by providing services, they may need to also consider the wear and tear on their assets—homes, cars, and tools—and on themselves. While somewhat hidden, these are costs that should not be taken lightly.

Because, after all, the “sharing economy,” for all its benefits, isn’t free.

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