IMPACT ON INDIVIDUALS
Even in the beginning stages of work's obsolescence and marginalization, millions of people feel the effects. There is an unsettling uproar in lives and business activity caused by the on-going challenge to the existence of almost all forms of economic activity. Millions live with personal insecurity. They live with the daily prospect of being laid off, with all that that entails by way of family financial crisis, marital stress and the individual’s need to seek new employment, retrain or perhaps pull up roots in one community and move to another. Much of the new work being offered is temporary, contingent, part time or offers few of the “fringe benefits” that people rely on for such things as health care and retirement. The level of stress, on the job and in family life, is elevated to new peaks. It is a population living with anxiety. No doubt any economic downturn exacerbates these problems, but it is an illusion to assign them fully to the downturn. They reflect the long-term tendency even when the economy is doing well.
As long ago as 1989,
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her book Fear of
Falling about the insecurity of the professional middle class. E. J. Montini put it in personal terms when
he described layoffs at the
A corporate manager told of a similar experience in a letter to historian Otto Scott: "Our new owners have a quite different culture and managerial style. They come into your factory, give you a check for your remaining vacation balance, a month's severance pay and in lieu of two weeks' notice give you two weeks' pay and say, ‘You have 30 minutes to leave the premises.'" [The letter writer's emphasis]
Insecurity appears in
many ways. The number of bankruptcies
soars. Companies cutting jobs see
employee morale plummet, and the employees who remain suffer something called
"lay-off survivor sickness."
Job insecurity is taking
its toll in
It is fitting that
reference is made to the impact on wages and salaries. A commonly cited fact in
the literature is that wages have been stagnant in the
Work is changing. This is marked by non-permanence, continual retraining, increased personal responsibility, self-direction, and even a lack of assigned physical location. Lars Erik Andreasen writes that "the cycles of a working life are different now; no longer can someone assume that when they (sic) enter a craft or profession as a young person they will ply that trade for life. People will have to retrain not just once but several times during a working life. Workers are also more often expected to take responsibility for more of their work. A decentralization of control in work is taking place...."
Underemployment substitutes for full employment. We
know from experience that it is possible for
millions of people to be unemployed.
Just the same, free-market theory projects that that cannot be a chronic
condition where the interplay of supply-and-demand is free to set wages at a
level that will "clear the market" of all who want to work. More than most other societies, the
With "shamrock organizations," only the core is permanent and there are many contingent relationships that branch out from it. What is the effect on workers? Samuel R. Sacco says in the journal Managing Office Technology that "in the era of reengineering, more companies are focusing on their core competencies and arranging their workforces to suit that focus." The companies call in workers as needed "without the requirement that these just-in-time workers become permanently attached to the company." A growing percentage of the American workforce has taken on peripheral status. It is no wonder that Ian Angell of the London School of Economics says "the future for us all is free-lance employment on a piece-by-piece basis."
This was presented in a
favorable light by J. E. Chesher in The Freeman, where he observed that "the worker... does not have
to punch a time card, account for his every move, or go through some
bureaucratic ritual to take an afternoon off." The worker's employer "enjoys the
benefit of a nearly endless labor pool, does not have to provide an assembly
plant, or pay workers' compensation insurance and fringe benefits." In sum: "This is a mutually beneficial
arrangement" – a conclusion that follows in every case in free-market
theory about any transaction that is "voluntary." It can be seen from the worker's perspective,
however, in a letter-to-the-editor that a recent college graduate wrote to the
The literature subdivides the underemployed into part-time, temporary, mismatched and discouraged:
The discussion of part-time
work brings us to the sort of evaluative morass that is so typical in
economic matters. Some commentators
argue that there is no problem with part-time employment. Svorny and Kaljian,
writing in the Milken Institute's journal Jobs & Capital in 1996, said: "About 16 percent of the labor force
worked part-time 20 years ago, and part-time workers compose about 16 percent
of the labor force today." And they
expressed the view that much of the part-time nature of the work is welcomed by
the employees. But we switch back to the other side of the
statistical argument when we read Business Week's report about
Temporary work is taking an ever-larger place, as we have seen, with
such workers becoming what is called "the contingent workforce." Business Week once told of one
temporary-help supplier that "has doubled the number of accountants it
places since 1992, to 85,000 last year."
As to the type of jobs the accountants get, the report says they
"earn $35,000 to $40,000 a year, 10% to 20% less than full-timers and
often get no health care or other benefits.
And most don't work year-round." Economist Steven Weber of the
As with all these
developments, some commentators offer explanations that deny the massive
underlying trends. Thus, The
Economist's "Survey of the World Economy" in 1996 could observe
about both part-time and temporary work that: "True, the share of
part-time jobs has increased in most industrial countries, but... the main
driving force has been women's often-expressed preference for working
part-time, not some sinister breakdown in the labour market. The OECD's latest Employment Outlook
also produced figures to show, contrary to conventional wisdom,
that in most countries there has been no significant increase in
temporary jobs." The problem is how to reconcile these points
with a news report such as the one from
Mismatched workers make up another part of underemployment. This is the problem of workers’ not having jobs based on their education and skills. They are, in effect, “over-qualified” for the jobs they have been able to get. The presence of a large number of these contradicts the notion that “more education and training” will provide each person a solution to his job problem.
Discouraged workers are those who have given up looking for work and aren't counted in unemployment statistics. We were told by Otto Scott in late 1996 that "the New York Times earlier this year reported an estimated 7 million men have permanently left the labor force and rely upon their wives' earnings." These include a great many who have been forced into early retirement. The retirees are often not thought to be among the discouraged workers. Many of them may in fact be pleased to be into the sunset years while they are still young enough to enjoy them. But many of them are people who would be working if forces beyond their control had not "put them out to pasture." In the early stages of downsizing, which mostly we are still in, "early retirement" is the easiest and perhaps most humane way to reduce a workforce. Individuals and society as a whole will think the pinch considerably more painful when there are no longer older employees to take early retirement; then more people will be cut loose during their prime earning years.
. E. J. Montini, “Cute word,
a cruel reality,” The Wichita Eagle,
. The Downsizing of
. Lars Erik Andreasen, "Foreword," in Ken Ducatel, ed., Employment and Technical Change in Europe (Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar Publishing Company, 1994), p. xi.