#20 work
Hannah Schilling

The Mobile Generation

Young people struggle to make a living in the digital economies – two stories from Abidjan and Berlin

Sitting next to me in a hip bar-restaurant in Berlin, Vic sips his smoothie. His full, black hair is tamed by a thin hairband and his neon yellow tracksuit top goes well with the colourful lights and arty atmosphere at the bar. “Berlin is THE place to become an independent film maker; I dream of creating my own stories,” he says enthusiastically. Vic moved to Berlin after he failed his A-levels and quit school, since in his hometown, he explains, “there really wasn't anything going on. Only old people still live there.” Everything is different in Berlin, though, and full of unexpected twists of fate. So far, instead of shooting films, Vic has tried to earn a living cycling around the city. He is part-time bicycle courier at a start-up that delivers food to office workers and the homes of middle class families. To him, it is more fun than work, and just a temporary way to get by. “Next month, I'll probably look for something else; maybe start some film projects for real.”

The “digital revolution” promises growth and jobs all over the world.

The dissolution of boundaries between work and leisure is not only generating new opportunities; it is also creating new challenges for the way we live in cities. How are digital economies transforming the way we work and earn a living in cities? How do young urban dwellers in particular deal with urban labour market conditions, where flexible and temporary ways to make money are not only on the rise, but also often seem to be the only available option? And not just in Berlin: The “digital revolution” promises growth and jobs all over the world. Finding a way to get by while trying to figure out how to get started in a “real profession” is also extremely relevant for young people on the other side of the globe. Like Mike, a young man in his 20s who lives in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire’s economic hub. He dreams of joining public service, preferably as a police officer.

…Mike and Vic welcome flexible work as a way to deal with this uncertainty.

Thousands of kilometres separate these two men, but they are both caught up in a similar quandary of how to make a living in thriving cities where the difference between success and failure feels like no more than the toss of a coin. As young urban dwellers, Mike and Vic welcome flexible work as a way to deal with this uncertainty.

The secret to success in this field is reliability, so Mike stays in the same spot all day long…

Mike is sitting on a street corner in his neighbourhood, where he has set up a small table as a desk. He works selling airtime to passers-by. A huge sun umbrella does its best to protect him from the sun and rain, and distinguishes him from all the other pedestrians and vendors in the street. Behind his desk, Mike wears a light-coloured shirt and denims, the look of a typical Abidjanese student complete with glasses. He spends the entire day here, 6 days a week, always available to refill SIM cards and provide on-site access to make phone calls. The secret to success in this field is reliability, so Mike stays in the same spot all day long, particularly during after-work hours, when most people return from the city centre and need to top up their phones. Still, Mike is proud to be his own boss who can call it a day whenever he likes.

“I deliver food on my bike, and I can decide how I want to work and organise my routes. And I earn money while getting exercise.” (Vic)

Vic praises the flexibility his job offers. Working as a bike courier is clearly a “chill” way to earn money. “I deliver food on my bike, and I can decide how I want to work and organise my routes. And I earn money while getting exercise,” Vic tells me. His shifts run the gamut from very busy to nothing much to do, and the number of orders he gets and trips he makes vary from day to day. In his down time, Vic hangs out in a coffee shop, at the bus stop, or on the closest park bench. To stay in business though, Vic and his bike have to be on call from lunch time to after midnight, every day, even weekends. His shifts change from week to week, depending on when the company needs him and when he is free.

This flexibilization requires different modes of control. Here too, new information technologies are crucial tools for enabling a sense of entrepreneurship, while at the same time ensuring high efficacy and output from workers. Mobile phones are the perfect devices, as they promise individual autonomy and smooth, easy organisation and monitoring.

Despite self-regulated working hours, and no formal employment contract with a company, Mike depends on the airtime supplied and the prices set by the telecommunication companies. They register Mike’s daily transactions and can block his SIM card if they register any abuse. The more he sells, the better his chances of getting promoted by one of the companies to work in an enclosed booth at a brick-and-mortor call centre.

Vic likes the fact that no boss is directly involved.

In Vic's case, the app on his phone sends messages and ringtones to remind him when a shift starts. Vic likes the fact that no boss is directly involved. He tells me how the app serves as his roadmap to restaurants, and to and from clients’ locations, five to six hours a day, in rain, hail and snow. The start-up he works for can monitor his every movement, and measures his speed and reliability. Every week, individual feedback is sent to Vic's inbox as an incentive for improving his performance.

Mobile phones might be the ultimate material symbol for the information age…

Mobile phones might be the ultimate material symbol for the information age, a term coined by sociologist Manuel Castells at the beginning of this century. The small devices have become part of our everyday lives to the point where life without them is unthinkable for most urbanites. They are a door to the world – and to work. Mobile phones represent connectivity and enable a lifestyle in which the distinction between work and leisure, and strict boundaries between the public and the private, are becoming increasingly blurred. The digitalization of economies is making the advertising slogan telecommunication operator MTN uses in Abidjan a reality: “You can work wherever you are, whenever you want.”

This process of flexibilization involves the emergence of more and more job opportunities with fewer entry requirements in terms of education, skills, and on-the-job training. Starting a phone booth is easy. All you need is a working mobile phone, a valid passport, and some basic maths and reading skills. It is easy to start, and just as easy to stop. Mike began selling airtime with a friend after failing the entrance exam to become a police officer. He wanted to be less dependent on the support of his family and didn’t want to just sit around idle, which is frowned upon by society, especially for young men like him.

Pedalling your bike through Berlin’s thriving neighbourhoods earning money delivering burgers, pizza, and sushi to middle class households is no more difficult than opening a phone booth. Riders don’t need any qualifications other than the ability to ride a bike and use a smartphone app, both no problem at all for most young people in Berlin.

Their work inhabits the shadowy space between pure free time and pure work and is somehow neither and both at the same time.

Cycling through the city and standing on a street corner for hours on end keeps these young urbanites busy and gives them a legitimate presence in the city as they work towards bigger goals. All that is really necessary is good physical health, as pedalling the busy streets for hours and sitting on a corner all day are both hard, physical work. Vic and Mike’s jobs show how the temporal rhythms of work and life are changing in urban digital economies, where time is increasingly becoming a value-generating resource and the basis for the exploitation of workers. Their work inhabits the shadowy space between pure free time and pure work and is somehow neither and both at the same time.

They are not confronted by rigid, bureaucratic hierarchies because technical devices organize their work flow…

This is also reflected in the social atmosphere in their workspaces. Young urbanites stress the ease with which they communicate with their co-workers and suppliers. Mike and Vic both like the fact that their colleagues are all nice and young. They are not confronted by rigid, bureaucratic hierarchies because technical devices organize their work flow, and optimize the supply of food or airtime to the customer. And they still enjoy a limited amount of freedom. Being friends with colleagues is not only fun – it also helps improve work performance. In Abidjan, the telecommunication companies can’t supply all the phone booths with enough airtime units at the same time. Mike struck up a friendship with his supplier, which helps him get SIM cards refilled with airtime units faster and purchase them on credit when money is tight. In Berlin, having a good relationship with the back office is also worth its weight in gold. If something important comes up, you can call them personally and get permission to deliver a few orders less to allow you to get other things done in the meantime.

Similarly, the companies Mike and Vic work for feel no sense of obligation to their workforce

Lower barriers to starting work as a bike courier or airtime seller along with subtle working disciplines and soft hierarchies create a working environment that operates based on low commitment. No one is really interested in staying on for the long haul. Vic doesn’t care how the start-up he rides for fares. He is always on the lookout for the next, better opportunity for making money. So is Mike, who feels no sense of obligation to the telecommunication companies he works for and plans quit as soon as he is able. Similarly, the companies Mike and Vic work for feel no sense of obligation to their workforce. Their focus is not on employment and the related rights of workers, and the duty to create working conditions that enable people to make a living in the long run. Instead, digital platforms and telecommunication corporations compete for investors and increase their market value by focusing on technological developments, rather than the human workforce that makes the business run on a daily basis. Working conditions are only relevant in so far as the companies need to attract enough people to do the work that has to be done. They do this in part by cultivating an ideology of entrepreneurship and the sense of freedom it brings.

Flexible workers like Mike and Vic embrace the concept of self-employment. Such freedom comes at a cost, however. They incur debt to their parents and acquaintances, as they have to invest in new smartphones, bikes and other kinds of equipment. They also bear all the risk, and have to pay out-of-pocket for a new bike or phone if one is lost, stolen or damaged. This is a tremendous investment on their part just to make marginal gains in sectors of the economy that are growing quickly and successfully, like mobile money in Cote d’Ivoire’s telecommunications sector, and the platform economy in Germany’s service sector.

These dynamics remain all but invisible to young workers like Mike and Vic, as they seem completely divorced from the young men’s everyday struggle to make a living and move towards realising their dreams for a successful life in the big cities they call home, Abidjan and Berlin. To hear them tell it, riding the streets and sitting on a street corner only represent a brief moment in their lives from which they will move on as soon as they can. Establishing an identity as a worker and as part of a collective requires energy they can ill afford, as time is fleeting and money is tight. As a consequence, it is difficult to build up leverage as workers to advocate for their right to share in the companies’ benefits and participate in decision-making processes.

The information age is opening new opportunities and markets and transforming the conditions under which people work and organize their lives and livelihood, especially in cities, hubs for the new economy. The boundaries of what we define as work are growing increasingly unclear, which has important consequences for the living conditions of those working in the most precarious jobs in the digital economies.

Vic and Mike embody these new entrepreneurs who, caught between the sheer infinite possibilities of the now and the uncertainty of tomorrow, are trying to find new voices to demand their rights as workers, and urban dwellers, collectively. Weaving their stories together to illustrate the new trends in flexible work can serve as a starting point for further reflection on the similarities and differences between their experiences as young urbanites in the highly globalized economies of Abidjan and Berlin.

Photo: “Soho Perch” by John Fraissinet
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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