I take two subways to work each morning. And every subway car is full of advertisement for Seamless, Grub Hub, PeaPod, Handy and the many apps that make up the errand economy. The advertising I see every day is telling me: I can make your life easier, if you’ll only let me.
The errand economy is made up of “concierge apps”—apps that can check off each item on your to-do list all from the convenience of your smartphone. As a newly minted New York resident, what can I get done right from my iPhone? I can procure groceries from Instacart, Peapod, FreshDirect or Whole Foods. Or I could just get a meal from Seamless, Munchery, Eat24 or Grubhub. I can get my laundry washed, folded and delivered via FlyCleaners. My imaginary French bulldog would be walked (and tracked by GPS) every day at 4 p.m. by Swifto. Need to hang that new appliance or schedule a yoga session? Amazon launched Amazon Home Services in late March to help you, “Say goodbye to that ‘Honey, Do List’ and conquer the world.” But if all this brings me too much anxiety, there’s an app to manage all the apps I have hired. (Hi, Alfred!)
As Jessica Pressler wrote in New York Magazine wrote last year, in a piece about a laundry app called Washio, “The brightest minds of a generation…have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems.” In theory, thanks to these geniuses, I could hire a mini-army to keep my life as stress-free as possible.
Unfortunately, I can’t afford it.
Covering the latest app has become commonplace because it’s the latest thing, and therefore it must be cool and life-changing. While it’s “cool” to most of the world, it’s only “life-changing” to those who can shell out the cash for the lifestyle—which is a lot of the journalists writing about them.
Matter’s Lauren Smiley, who lives in the building in which her story is set, referred to these apps’ users as members of the “Shut-In Economy.” The piece describes them as aware of their #whitepeopleproblems, but unapologetically so. “Basically, people a lot like herself,” Smiley wrote, referring to a woman who epitomized this new economy: the class of men and women who are late 20s to early 30s, have a high income and use on-demand services without batting an eye. “That’s the common wisdom: The apps are created by the urban young for the needs of urban young.” Last week, New York Magazine’s Annie Lowrey took it a step further and lived with only these modern conveniences for two weeks. Her piece was slapped with a painfully tone-deaf headline: “Will the New Concierge Economy Mean the End of the Errand?”
Of course not. For the vast majority of us, the inconvenience of running errands doesn’t outweigh the financial costs of doing it ourselves.
Some of these articles do pay lip service to the people delivering the goods these apps deliver, the people who’d probably never be able to squeeze myriad service-app charges into their budgets. The people who, as Smiley wrote, are “stuck outside, hustling,” which frees up the time of those in the tech community to do a more cerebral hustle. These apps, in theory, let us outsource everything. But to whom? As one commenter wrote on Matter, this isn’t the shut-in economy but a new form of class struggle: “[I]t’s about being served, while maintaining a minimum of interaction with those of differing economic classes.” As someone who has used FlyCleaners after finding out my new place didn’t have a washer and dryer, I can confirm: You spend minimal time with these workers for maximum gain. Additional tips not necessary.
These stories give us the illusion that this economy is the new normal, that you’re out of touch if you still pick up your own groceries. But more than two years ago, Ellen Cushing wrote about how dangerous this small faction of “new normal” was to the Bay Area. Hers is one of the few articles to acknowledge how crushing this type of on-demand economy can be and how its catered to a very specific part of the population—a new kind of 1 percenters. These consumers don’t care about paying an extra $10 for groceries to be delivered, let alone $100 for a forgotten laptop charger. This economy just wouldn’t exist without the huge influx of venture capital. As one San Franciscan told Cushing: “There’s no way this would exist without tech. No way.”
The discussion around these apps, the supposed high usage and great creative and productivity benefits must be framed with their audience: upper-class, mostly white (particularly metropolitan area) urbanites with significant disposable income. Perhaps this is why it took Lowrey until the last paragraph before she mentioned class, and it was in the context of gender equality: “And even if tech’s men-children are the ones dreaming up these apps, my suspicion is that women have a lot to gain from them—or at least the privileged women with enough disposable income to use them.”
Stories like these that not only gloss over the concierge economy’s inherent class issues, but the fact that these services simply don’t exist outside of major metropolitan areas. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, a small city in the middle of the country that developers and consumers of these apps seldom think of. I moved to New York from Dallas, Texas—not exactly a small place—and even we didn’t have most of these options. Do introverts not live in these places? Doesn’t matter; for now, they still have to do their own laundry and go shop for their own groceries. I love living in large cities like New York (well, Brooklyn) but these journalists’ geographical biases are infuriating.
Not to mention the sheer cost of appifying your chores. The U.S. Census puts the median household income for Dallas County at $49,481 and for the state of Texas, it’s not much more at $51,900. In New York, the median household income is $52,259. These are not incomes that allow you to hire someone to walk your dog, hire a maid service, have another service do your wash and fold, shop for your groceries and hire Magic. Maybe you can afford one (or two) of these things. But the lifestyle these apps are selling is an all-or-nothing picture. You can have all these things and be free to conquer the world…if you can pay for it. If you can’t, you’ll lose all those hours to housework and errands. Sorry, not sorry, actual middle-class dwellers.
In other words, most of these services are for rich people. Concierge apps are not the new economy. They’re more like a newer, more invisible kind of gentrification—this time, you never have to leave the couch.
In a world where Munchery hasn’t even reached Brooklyn yet, we need to remember that these apps will only change the lives of a very specific subset of people living in very specific locations. Indeed, they would likely not be successful anywhere else. Most of the population will never be able to integrate these apps into their monthly budgets, let alone the good majority of Americans who do not live in New York, Washington, D.C. or San Francisco. Using these apps might make your life easier, but honestly? Your income probably already made your life easier.
Lead photo: Adam Fagan on Flickr