Earlier this year, ridesharing tech giant Uber released a study of its drivers that revealed nearly nine out of 10 said autonomy and work-life flexibility were their primary reasons for signing on with the $40-billion company. Seven out of 10 said they make more money now than they did before they started rideshare driving (averaging $19 to $27 per hour, depending on previous experience) and the same number reported they drove to support a child or parent living with them at home.
Perhaps the most interesting statistic to come out of the survey, though, was the fact that more Uber drivers are over 50 than under 30.
Curious to get the perspective of a demographically-similar ridesharing driver, we spoke with Susan Johnston, 56, who drives for Lyft, a $2.5-billion dollar company that competes with Uber. (Lyft declined to release exact numbers, but did say a growing number of 50+ drivers have joined its ranks.)
Before Lyft, Johnston had already raised children, had more than one rewarding career and had gone into semi-retirement wondering what was next. Eventually she decided to put herself in the driver’s seat — literally — when she become a rideshare driver in Sacramento, Calif., even though some of her friends and family thought she was “crazy” for doing it.
Was it a crazy choice in the end? We called her to find out.
Next Avenue: What were you doing before driving for Lyft?
Johnston: I was a juvenile probation officer for Fresno County for about 12 years. Then I owned my own business for about nine years here in Fresno, but after the economy [crashed] we had to close our business. I’ve been a professor at a junior college, I’ve had a career, I have a bachelor’s degree, but when you’re older, it can be difficult to get a job. It’s hard to put yourself out there.
Right now, I’m figuring out what I want to do next. But I’m not going to sit around and do nothing. This is helping me connect the dots in the meantime.
What drew you to Lyft?
I have a daughter who lives in a sorority [in Arizona] and she would sometimes take a Lyft. We gave her our credit card number and said, ‘If you have even one drink, just use this service.’ It prevents so many issues. So that’s how I found out about it and I thought it was really cool.
I really like that it’s flexible. I can be independent. My husband goes out of town for work a lot and my daughter moved out of town, so [driving] gets you out there. It’s a positive thing. I get to talk to attorneys and engineers and business owners. I talk to a lot of students from different countries and they talk about where they’re from. There are people going to the airport on awesome vacations. It keeps you connected with people a little bit. It’s really fun. For a while there, I wasn’t doing much except taking care of my 85-year-old mother. I don’t think a regular job would really fit in with those responsibilities.
My husband’s business is doing well now, but we just needed a little extra income. It’s helped me to save a little money for trips to visit my daughter in Scottsdale and save for special little things. It’s helpful to have a little extra money. Instead of going back to a 40-hour-a-week job or being a probation officer, it seemed like a fun thing to do. And if my husband and I want to go somewhere, I don’t have to turn [the service] on or even think about it until I’m ready to do it again.”
What did your friends and family members think when you decided to drive for Lyft?
[laughs] Well, my husband’s side of the family is all law enforcement, so they were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ But I really thought it through and felt security wouldn’t be a problem. If I felt uncomfortable, I’d cancel the ride and leave. I’ve never really worried about my security. There are times when people ask me take them to a bus station in a horrible area of Fresno, but if you don’t want to be there, all you have to do is turn off your service, go back to the north side of town and turn your service back on. That’s what’s nice: there are no strict rules about where you should be or where you have to drive.
When do you usually drive and take passengers?
My husband has his own business and takes off early, and I’m an early riser, so I normally go on around 6 or 7 a.m. Then I take a break because I take care of my mom. Then maybe I’ll go back on at 3 p.m. I’m a day person, which is kind of unusual for Lyfting, but maybe not for my age.
Are you pretty busy when you’re on duty?
I probably have eight Lyfts, and make $40 or $50, but sometimes I make $100. I do much better on weekends, of course. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I start early and I have a lot of business taking people back to their cars after they’ve taken a Lyft home the night before. They’re getting things back together after a fun night out. [laughs] I usually have water for them in my glove compartment and I’m very understanding.
Any fun passenger stories?
One time I was out at night and I got called and the picture of the passenger — it seemed a little intimidating, but I decided to go for it. They were at Olive Garden and at first I couldn’t find them. I called him and said, ‘This is Susan, your Lyft driver. Where are you?’ He said, ‘Well, there’s three of us, and we’re standing out front of the restaurant.’ I said, ‘Don’t you see my [car]?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re all visually-impaired.’ They were all blind. I did find them, and they were just the most fun. There were jokes all the way back to where they were going.
If you had a friend considering driving for one of the ridesharing services, what would you tell them?
I would let them know not to be scared. There’s nothing to be scared of. I’d tell them it’s okay to not accept a ride if it’s really far away because you’re basically going to lose money. It’s okay with the company, too. You just call the person and tell them. And I’d say just enjoy the people. Have fun with it.