Hundreds of thousands of Americans joined a nationwide strike supporting an eight-hour work day on May 1, 1886. A few days later workers and police clashed in the deadly Haymarket protests. In recognition, May 1 was later declared International Workers’ Day. Though comparatively modest, this month’s strike by Uber drivers echoed its distant forebear. The low-paying ride-hailing service has come to symbolize today’s gig economy, and the insecurity pervading the American workplace (if the front seat of a Honda qualifies as a place).
As numerous books have affirmed, the way we organize work is undergoing a transformation. While many have focused on recent technological change, historian Louis Hyman reaches further back. In “Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary,” he documents a 40-year erosion in US job security. Throw in some smartphones, and Uber is simply the manifestation of where we have been headed all along.
For those who missed business school, Hyman’s account is apt to deliver multiple shocks of recognition. Yes, we all know that today’s corporations emphasize shareholder returns to the exclusion of almost everything else. Less clear are the thought processes that took us from the stable jobs of the early postwar years to where we are now.
If Hyman is correct, ambitious college graduates who flocked to management-consulting firms in the 1970s and ’80s needed more than their considerable smarts to create the lean companies investors prize. They also needed hordes of temporary workers — largely low-paid women — to carry out office tasks on the cheap. In 1975, by one estimate, more than 100 firms supplying temporary workers had set up shop in Boston.
Hyman sees Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,” published in 1970, as the playbook for today’s gig economy. Corporate leaders absorbed its assurances that work, though increasingly short-term and team-based, would become more satisfying. Besides, any need for stability would be met at home — by wives. In the ensuing years, outsourced labor became standard. By the 1990s, when “downsizing” entered Americans’ vocabulary, most understood that even a college degree was no guarantee of job security.
In Hyman’s view, flexible workforces have become the dominant model not because of technological change but because of the reigning corporate ideology. Yet all is not lost. He argues that if we embrace the correct social policies, workers could ultimately benefit.
Forgive Steven Hill for feeling doubtful. In “Raw Deal — How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers,” he takes on the idea, pushed by Silicon Valley and Wall Street, that the new “sharing economy” will turn every worker into a one-person start-up. The good jobs that disappeared with the Great Recession, in 2008, have not returned, he notes. Instead, multinational corporations have cut their US workforces and hired abroad, leaving many Americans to cobble together a living.
Like Hyman, he declares that none of what is happening is ordained. Among the more promising solutions are policies that tie systems to ensure economic security to individuals rather than to their jobs, creating a kind of portable social contract. (The Europeans, he notes, are better at this than we are.)
Dan Lyons, author of “Lab Rats — How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us,” might well concur. His quest to understand the modern workplace has yielded an amusing but often harrowing report from the front lines.
Recent studies have revealed levels of stress, bullying, and sexual harassment that astonished researchers. One reason, Lyons suggests, is that the new, enlightened workplace can resemble a psychology lab run by quacks. Under the banner of self-improvement, employees fearful for their jobs endure infantilizing team-building exercises and manipulative critiques. The focus is projects, not careers. So what if companies offer Ping-Pong and snacks? Under the new corporate compact, invented and perfected in Silicon Valley, the company assumes a work force that is always shifting.
Isabel Sawhill brings the more detached view of an old-school economist to the discussion. In “The Forgotten Americans — An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation,” she ponders what might be done to help workers on the bottom half of the income scale. “Gig” appears nowhere in her index, nor, evidently, in her nightmares. She envisions a future in which jobs are still largely allocated by employers but will require different skills. Our political framework, she says, must find a way to better share the fruits of the changes we are witnessing, probably through the tax system.
For Sawhill, a former secretary who held a prominent post in the Clinton administration, individual responsibility is crucial to the new order. Nevertheless, she too looks toward a different kind of social insurance system, one focused on lifelong education and family care as well as retirement.
Still, she warns that “our political institutions may not be up to the challenge,” which, I fear, may be a severe understatement. Does the future, for too many, consist of boxing Amazon orders and dropping each other off? We might consider ourselves warned.M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.