Mobile Livelihoods in Stress

Biao Xiang

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of just how many people across the world rely on mobility for their livelihood: taxi drivers, delivery workers, street vendors, maintenance technicians of long-distance operation systems, all employees in the hospitality sector… not forgetting the most vulnerable at this time, the homeless, beggars and street kids, especially in the global South, who have to move from place to place to get food, to find a place to sleep through the night, and to run away from police.

People with mobile livelihoods are not the same as migrant workers. They bear a number of distinctive features:

  • mobility is their main means of work, rather than simply a way to access jobs as in the case of migrant workers;
  • they rely on others’ mobilities to create demands for their work;
  • increasingly commonly, they work in precarious conditions without long-term security, which partly explains why
  • they not only move between places, but also between jobs frequently;
  • through constant movement they seek higher pay and cope with various problems such as work disputes or family needs. Mobility is a source of vulnerability, but is also a coping method. Immobility deprives them of their basic coping resource and thus exacerbates vulnerability;
  • their work, delivered on the move, tends to be immaterial, non-accumulative and extremely time-sensitive. While manufacturers can make up for lost time by extra work later, service workers cannot reverse the loss of economic opportunities. For them the loss is like the loss of time itself. If a taxi driver can’t work for a month, he/she can’t expect the number of customers in the next month would double the usual. There is no such thing as “delay” in mobile livelihoods.

“Work from home” is now a requirement, but not everyone can afford to do so. Immobility is a privilege, and self isolation a luxury. For many, staying at home simply means being jobless.

A mobile livelihood is more than mobile work

The prevalence of mobile livelihoods, in both the global North and South, is clearly associated with structural changes in the economy. But individuals’ choice matters too. According to a survey by Meituan, the largest food delivery company in China, 64.0% of its riders identified “time flexibility” as the most important reason why they chose the job, by far the most popular reason. 58.8% of riders work less than 4 hours a day on delivery; multitasking is the normal working life for them.[1] Driving taxis for app companies appeals to young people partly because the job is associated with car ownership, a typical symbol of the middle class.

Mobility is thus a livelihood strategy, namely how “people pursue a range of livelihood outcomes (health, income, reduced vulnerability, etc.) by drawing on a range of assets to pursue a variety of activities. The activities they adopt and the way they reinvest in asset-building are driven in part by their own preferences and priorities.”[2] In order to understand mobile livelihoods, we need to know what the actors do, what they have, as well as what they desire and what they avoid.

Mobility assemblages

Not all people with mobile livelihoods are affected by the shutdowns in the same way. In China for instance, truck drivers, taxi drivers and delivery riders have experienced the epidemic differently.

Truck drivers have been affected severely. According to a nation-wide survey on 23 February, one month after the Wuhan lock down, 75.4% of the surveyed truck drivers could not work at all since the virus outbreak; 90% of them reported to feel “extreme” or “considerable” economic stress. They identified vehicle loans and house mortgage as the two main sources of the hardship.[3]

In contrast, food delivery riders witnessed surge of job opportunities. Between 20 January and 18 March 2020, Meituan alone recruited 336,000 riders, in addition to the 4 million in 2019. More than 60% of the new recruits had lost jobs in manufacturing or service due to the shutdown.[4]

Taxi drivers’ experiences are more differentiated. Orders of taxis (including on-line hailing riding) dropped by 85% in February.[5] Some drivers lost up to 80% of incomes in the worst week even though they were outside the epicentre, others suffered less. This depended on which financial scheme the driver chose when signing contracts with the car rental company.[6]

Thus, mobilities are mobility assemblages—mixes of different types of mobilities. The halt of population movement can be more accurately understood as a redistribution of mobilities: empty trains are accompanied by the intensified movements of “key workers”. Mobility assemblages are also manifested by long-distance truck drivers shifting to short-distance transport, and hotel staff becoming delivery workers. We need to examine the relations between different modes of mobilities and the dynamics of how mobile livelihoods mutate.

The future for mobile livelihoods

The fact that 336,000 workers in China lost their regular jobs and became Meituan riders may indicate that mobile livelihoods will become even more prevalent in the future. Another curious development is that, despite the acute need for timely goods delivery, truck drivers reported a minimum of 20% drop in their renumeration, and the trend continued after the transport restriction was lifted. Could it be that app companies are taking a bigger share of profits in a time when the total revenue shrank?

This is what makes mobile livelihoods in the 21st century so different from their historical predecessors such as itinerant merchants, seasonal agricultural workers, and peasant “target earners”.[7] Mobile livelihoods today are intensively mediated through large digital platforms and complicated financial packages. For instance car rental companies in China turned on-line hailing rides into a range of financial packages to be sold to the drivers, which mitigated the impacts of the disruption on some drivers but exacerbated for others.

Thinking of our post-pandemic life, we should think not only whether we need more or less mobility, but also how mobile livelihoods should be organized.


[1] Meituan Research Institute, 2020-03-19. Report on Meituan riders’ employment during the 2019-2020 epidemic.

[2] Farrington, J., D. Carney, C. Ashley and C. Turton. 1999. Sustainable Livelihoods in Practice. Early Applications of Concepts in Rural Areas. Natural Resources Perspectives 42. London: Overseas Development Institute.

[3] Chuanhua Charity Foundation Public Welfare Institute. 2020. 2020 Survey on Chinese truck drivers.

[4] Meituan Research Institute. Ibid.

[5] Ministry of Transport. 10 March 2020. Orders for taxis dropped by 85% in February. No.1 Finance and Economy.

[6] Ke Xiaobin. 2020. Online ride-hailing in the shadow of the epidemic: some drivers’ income plunges 80%. February 11. Interface News.

[7] Piore, Michael. 1979. Birds of Passage: Migrant Labour and Industrial Societies. Cambridge University Press.