What Would a Largely Contingent Labor Force Mean for American Society
This week I’ve wondered about whether the United States is giving up on good jobs. Rufus wrote about how is Canadian University won a sustained battle against their current maintenance employees and those services will probably now be contracted out to a company that will pay less money and offer fewer or no benefits. This makes me wonder if we are seeing a paradigm shift in the nature of employment in North America (and maybe the Western World) and what it means for American Society.
Are More People Choosing Contingent Work by Choice?
The Harvard Business Review article I linked to opens with the line that “More and More People are Choosing a Contingent Work Style-that is, temporary work that may be project based or time-based.”
The real answer is probably much more complicated. Some jobs and industries have always been project based. If I continued with theatre and was successful in being a professional director, I would have worked on a project to project base and gone through downtime between plays. Friends of mine who are in the TV and Movie business do go through downtime between projects and a lot of backstage professionals are on and off unemployment insurance during downtimes or they pick up secondary careers that allow for a lot of flexibility and picking up of easy work when not working on an artistic project.
I suspect that a lot of claims about how more and more workers are turning freelance is largely marketing spin though. I’ve been a freelance and contract lawyer for the past few years. Sometimes my jobs are truly independent contract and I am able to set my own schedule and this is very nice. There are other times when I am more like a temp and my hours are set by my bosses or the hiring agency and the choice is accepting their terms or not working. This is not so nice.
This raises the question of how many people are working as independent contractors or contingent workers because they want to and how many people are doing out of necessity because of shifts in industry and the economy. Slate published an article criticizing Uber over this issue yesterday. Uber says that they are creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Slate points out that being an Independent Contractor is not a job because it pushes the costs of business onto the worker and cuts into a worker’s bottom line without hurting the company’s profit margin. Former OTer James Hanley and I got into an argument about whether most Uber drivers want to be I.C.s or not and I pointed to a lawsuit of suing Uber drivers and he wondered whether this represents a majority or not.
My honest answer is I don’t know and I suspect that Hanley does not know either. We both have our ideological preferences. I’ve had Uber and Lyft drivers who told me that they are doing this for extra cash and love it and I’ve had Uber and Lyft drivers tell me that they are doing it out of sheer necessity.
The question is whether it is possible to create a set of laws and policies for those who want to be typical employees with balance and security while also allowing people to be independent contractors if they want. I am not sure that it is and I am not sure why independent contracting and contingent labor should get preferential treatment.
The Economic and Social Costs of Independent Contracting/Contingent Labor
LeeEsq has pointed out in previously that there are other examples of societies where contingent labor and underemployed elites were the norm. His go to example is 19th century Italy which had an overabundance of underemployed lawyers and doctors and also a large section of poor people who survived on sustenance farming and were lucky to get 150 days of paid labor from other sources. This resulted in large amounts of Italian immigration to the New World for better economic opportunity and the underemployed Lawyers and Doctors were driven to radical politics on the far Left and far Right between Anarcho-Syndaclism and Fascism.
I don’t think the situation in the United States and Canada is going to be as dire as the situation in 19th Century Italy (at least not yet) but we are seeing a rise in partisanship on the Left and the Right and this allows the more radical members of each party to emerge victorious especially in local and Congressional elections.
The real costs that I worry about is whether a certain chunk of Late Generatio Xers and Millennials are going to be part of a “lost” or “silent” generation and to be honest I worry about being part of this group. We already know that entering the work force during a recession has long-term economic effects. My fear is that these are still continuing even if the worst of the Great Recession is over. A lot of jobs that were shed just might not come back and it could be twenty to forty years before they are replaced by better paying and newer jobs.
This recessionary cohort is probably going to lead to much lower levels of consumer spending and confidence. A lot of the spin about freelancing is that it allows you to work for a few months with intensity and then spend the rest of the year traveling the world. I always hear stories about people who can do this but I’ve never met any in person. Said person usually has very specialized and hard to come by skills like fluency in two very hard to learn languages like Japanese, Korean, Arabic, etc. I suspect that most contingent workers including skilled and educated ones have a good amount of fear over being able to pay the rent and bills to plan three-month trips to Asia and Europe. Non-educated contingent workers will be even more fearful.
I also suspect that we are going to see a rise in assortative mating, singleness, and/or people choosing not to have children because of the rise in contingent labor. As noted above, there are two forms of independent contracting/contingent labor. There is the form where you get to negotiate and set your own hours and there is the form where you are on call 24/7 and hoping to get work. I suspect that most contingent labor is in the waiting 24/7 category and it creates a psychological drain to need to drop everything in order to work.
The waiting 24/7 category at least makes me hesitant to maintain much of a social life because you can always have plans and then need to cancel because work comes up at the last minute. Maybe you can turn down work every now and then but agencies tend to stop calling if you do it all the time. I noted in Rufus’s university thread that I used to work as a temp legal proofreader. Even at 24, I hated the graveyard shift because it would throw me off for days after doing one but I felt compelled to do them because the agencies tended to stop giving 1st and 2nd shift work to people who turned down one too many graveyard shifts.
Childrearing is also hard if not impossible on this schedule and I suspect that a lot of people and especially underemployed but highly educated people are going to find that it is very hard if not impossible to maintain social and/or romantic relationships with their cohort who are employed at more regular hours because of resentment over constantly changed plans. I suspect that this will hit men (especially heterosexual men) the hardest because even though times are changing, there are still strong cultural expectations that men need regular employment and traditionalish career path to be seen as romantically viable. If both people in the couple are stuck in contingency/temp work, I suspect that there might be a great bit of competition and/or resentment at over whose work comes first if someone needs to be available for childcare.
If you were to tell me that I am going to be a temp/contingent worker for the rest of my career, my decision would probably be to remain childless because of the issues listed above.
The Fiscal Crisis and Great Recession are still very recent history. There could be strong improvement in the economy and all these stories of hardship and uncertainty might become battle scar stories. When I was a first year law student, a judge told me that when he graduated law school, the only job he was able to get was as a house painter. Our current underemployed workers could be the same or this can be a paradigm shift and their current situation can be their lives. Only time will tell but I am currently closer to thinking a paradigm shift has happened and we will see long-term and not good societal changes.