The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)
From the Editor
The importance of work to Americans is hard to overstate. More than half say they derive their sense of identity from their jobs, and that percentage jumps to two-thirds among those who have annual household incomes of $50,000 or more. While Americans grouse about their bosses and their pay as much as anyone else, they remain surprisingly positive about the work itself. According to one recent poll, an astonishing 93 percent of employed Americans say they like their jobs. How much they like them is also surprising. In direct contrast with leisure-favoring Europeans, Americans who work more than forty hours a week are reportedly happier than those who work less than forty hours.
Work’s importance to the American pursuit of happiness is just one reason we might be concerned about tectonic shifts occurring in today’s workplace, including ones that are putting the very notion of workplace in question. Downsizing, offshoring, flattening, automation, outsourcing, disruption, temping, part-timing—these are just some of the words defining and describing key features of the emerging workscape in America and, indeed, the wider global economy. One troubling consequence of these developments and practices has been a steady rise in the percentage of prime-age Americans who are not working, either because they are unemployed or because they’ve dropped out of the workforce altogether. Another disturbing trend is the increasing rate of underemployment, especially among recent college graduates who find themselves in jobs for which they are greatly overqualified. As The Atlantic recently reported, “The distorting effect of the Great Recession should make us cautious about over interpreting these trends, but most began before the recession, and they do not seem to speak encouragingly about the future of work.”
Those ominous words appear in an article bearing the even more ominous title, “A World Without Work.” The article teases out some of the direst implications of a 2013 study by two Oxford University scholars predicting that increasing automation “will put around 47 percent of total US employment…in the high risk category [of obsolescence]” in the next decade or two. That study may be a little heavy on techno-determinism, but sophisticated computers and robotics are already challenging the job security of workers everywhere from factory floors to professional office suites, whether the collars of the workers are blue, white, or pink.
Automation and technological innovations unquestionably rank high among the factors making the contemporary working world more precarious than the one that emerged and held sway during the decades following World War II, decades when phrases like job security and lifelong career meant something real. But changes started in the late 1970s, when, among other things, arguments for greater labor market flexibility began to gain purchase among corporate and industrial leaders, challenging the assumptions and guarantees of job security. Strong unions, fixed workplaces, a predictable forty-hour workweek (and overtime pay for those who worked longer), employer-provided health insurance, pensions, and other benefits—these fixtures of a more secure working world began to seem less than assured.
The denizens of the emerging economy would soon acquire a name befitting their insecure status: the precariat. A portmanteau word combining the adjective precarious with the class designation proletariat, the term was coined by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal laborers, but it was soon adopted and modified by scholars to describe a broad, class-transcending spectrum of workers whose employment conditions are, to varying degrees, flexible, part-time, temporary, benefit-less, provisional—in short, precarious. In addition to migrant and seasonal laborers, members of the precariat include many of those above-mentioned underemployed college grads (some of whom move serially from one poorly paid internship to another), the ever-expanding legions of day laborers, temps, part-timers, gig workers, and the assorted fashioners of “self-assembled” careers. Such employment is not necessarily poorly paid; indeed, many high-flying independent management consultants command princely remuneration. But whether low or high, the denizens of precarity live day by day, on the edge, by their wits alone, with little or no institutional support, and often without the solidarity of fellow workers.
And the numbers of the precariat appear to be growing. In his 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, British economist Guy Standing acknowledges that precise figures are impossible to determine. Nevertheless, he estimates that “at present, in many countries, at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat.” Standing elaborates on his understanding of this status:
This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labor protection, although all this is widespread. It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations of those who saw themselves as belonging to the industrial proletariat or the salariat had come to expect as their due.
Work in the precarious economy is the theme of this issue. In addition to exploring some of the conditions and factors giving rise to our present situation—see, in particular historian Louis Hyman’s essay on the gradual transformation of corporate practices in America—we examine the social and cultural implications, the costs and possible benefits, of life and work in what Allison Pugh has dubbed “the tumbleweed society.”
Among such implications are changing notions of what jobs and careers mean. Discouraged from seeing their working lives as something lastingly bound to a single factory, corporation, or firm, today’s workers, as Benjamin Snyder shows in his essay, are being coached to embrace their autonomous condition. In the words of one career counselor quoted by Snyder, “The day is gone when you can give your career to your employer.”
Some members of the precariat, as Brent Cebul argues, view their seemingly limitless autonomy as a kind of “liberation” from the stultifying ways of “paternalistic” companies. Both Cebul and Snyder invoke the analysis of prominent social critics from the fifties and sixties who decried the soul-crushing routines and conformity that were the price of the security of a “bounded career.” That critique resonates with people who (at least at times) proudly assert their independence, their initiative, and their ability not merely to bounce back from, but also to thrive amid, the ongoing disruptiveness of today’s work environment. A new generation of “disruptables” is forging new conceptions of vocation, as Philip Lorish shows in his look at the work culture of Silicon Valley—a culture that has in many ways become the test case and model for work in an economy of ceaseless “creative destruction.”
As much as precarity may give, it also takes away. The challenge of training future workers for this environment, as Mike Rose makes clear, is anything but easy. The pressures of sustaining a “self-assembled career,” as Carrie Lane calls an increasingly common form of work in the new economy, are grinding, endless, and often deeply demoralizing. Health and family stability become increasingly vulnerable when working hours, income, and even work are uncertain. Among the professional organizers (of lives, homes, and offices) that Lane discusses, the need for support and mutual aid has led to the creation of a new association that provides just that. But affiliations, associations, and institutions are particularly vulnerable in today’s workscape. As psychologist Howard Gardner argues in his essay, the winner-take-all mentality that features so prominently in the new economy has eroded the security and ethical authority even of professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and academics.
The relentless “marketizing” of everything, singled out by many social critics as the hallmark of the neoliberal era, has had deep consequences for how people think about themselves. When a harsh market logic suffuses everything from work to politics to the university, individual human subjects are reduced to units of capital, “rendered” in the words of political scientist Wendy Brown, “as entrepreneurial, no matter how small, impoverished, or without resources” they may be. As the alarming surge in suicides and drug-related deaths among middle-aged working-class whites suggests, many Americans are losing their sense of self-worth.
Yet despair can be cheap. The conditions of precarity can spur new thinking about the character of our economic lives and perhaps give rise to new ways of organizing work in imaginative ways that direct the logic of technology toward the sustenance of institutions—particularly local and humanly scaled ones—rather than their destruction. Charles Heying, in his contribution, reflects on the significance of craft and artisanal industries emerging in Portland, Oregon, and other locales across the country. Such developments may seem wistfully romantic. But to dismiss such imaginative alternatives for the future of work is to resign ourselves to a condition even worse than precarious.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.