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The Problem with Uber

Personal finance blogger and author Iona Bain on what Uber tells us about our consumer decisions...  

As a writer who is focused on young people’s financial rights, the recent decision by Transport for London to suspend Uber’s license to operate in the capital presented me with an ethical quandary.

Do I support Uber, which has given cash-strapped millennials a cheaper and more convenient way to get from A to B? Or do I support TFL’s decision to crack down on a firm which seems to have exploitation and dirty tricks baked into their entire business model?

As you can probably infer from my strident language, I went for option B. 

Now, don’t worry, this ISN’T going to turn into a “why I hate Uber” blog that you’ve read a million times elsewhere. You know the arguments for and against, and who cares what I think anyway?

But writing the Young Money Blog has forced me to face up to how individual financial decisions feed into our economy. Ghandi’s exhortation to “be the change you want to see in the world” never seems more apt than when you’re deciding which companies you want to give your hard-earned cash to. 

So when I logged onto Facebook after Uber-gate, I expected to see a few mentions of the decision, mostly in favour of TFL’s attempts to bridle a firm accused of everything from tax avoidance to misogynistic corporate culture. 

Yet DOZENS of my friends were sharing links to the official petition launched by Uber to save its own skin. Highly educated, seemingly principled and politically aware…all desperate to keep Uber operating in London. How did this happen?

It’s the Pandora’s Box problem. Once the authorities allowed Uber to start preying on a vulnerable section of the workforce and pandering to consumers’ expectations of what a taxi service “ought” to cost, the situation became intractable very quickly.

And Uber skilfully manipulated young Londoners to believe cheap taxis late at night are somehow an unassailable human right, and that any company offering such a vast leap forward in mankind’s pursuit of leisure can and should be above the law.

Image: black cab London

Furthermore, Uber has cynically preyed on women’s understandable paranoia about late-night transportation to persuade them that only THEIR model could possibly enable the female population to go out after 10pm at night. This alone speaks volumes about how patronising and dishonest the company has been in its pursuit of new customers.

Preying on the Young

When I wrote my book, Spare Change, I looked closely at the psychological reasons why people tend to be bad with money. And I also explored the strategies used by companies to prime consumers. One of them is creating an artificial need. And Uber has now cleverly persuaded its users that what they’re buying is personal freedom. 

For millennials who are locked out of the housing market, saddled with depressing student debt and struggling to make the financial numbers add up, a taste of freedom is a very powerful product indeed. 

Uber has tapped into gen Y’s disaffection to present a seemingly boundless opportunity to live in the moment in one of the best cities in the world. And I don’t blame my generation one bit for embracing this fantasy, even if the reality amounts to an underpaid, exploited chauffeur who will take you home after a night of drowning your sorrows.

But stoking up this kind of behaviour leads us down a dangerous road. It ultimately gives your hacked-off, underpaid and overworked millennial the excuse to be a responsibility-free consumer.

To not worry about the ethical price that’s being paid at every level of the business to provide this alluring service. To normalise the pursuit of cheap convenience above all else. To give certain companies like Uber – and the millennials they indulge – a free pass on ethical consumerism.

Holding Companies to Account

And that’s where I get worried. Only six years ago did people of my age camp outside St Pauls in a desperate bid to make destructive, high-handed companies more accountable for their actions. If each of them sat down today and asked “how have I changed my approach to the companies I deal with in the meantime?”

I suspect the answer would be: “Not much.” Bank switching is still pathetically low, credit card debt is a way of surviving and Ryanair will be packing those customers back onto their planes in no time.

It doesn’t have to be this way. What kind of legacy do we want to leave behind? One where companies gleefully misdirecte our ill-informed clicktivism and foster a nihilist consumer mind-set for their own self-gain? Or one where we, as individuals, make difficult, brave decisions about how we act – and drive real, long-lasting change in the process?

As tricky as it will be, I will do my own tiny bit to be the change I want to see in the world. Let's hope enough young people do the same.

Iona's book, Spare Change, talks about ethical consumerism and how we can all have a healthier relationship with money. You can buy her book from Waterstones here. She is founder of the award-winning Young Money Blog, as well as a speaker, journalist and media commentator.  

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