The New Work Economy is Failing Everyone

Lost amidst the euphoria of the surge in employment is the fundamental truth about the nature of these jobs. The apolitical banter around labor growth has concocted a notion that there was a swell in 9-5 gigs over the past decade.

But when looking closer at the data, former Obama economic advisors, Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz, learned that ninety-four percent of the jobs created since 2005 were deemed non-traditional work – a big tent that includes contractors, on-call employees, and individuals who work for contract companies that often hire janitors or hotel workers for large corporations. Today almost 40 percent of those in the labor force fall into this category, up from 35 percent a decade ago. A stark contrast in the growth story of other periods of recovery.

With such jobs being taken up by every working age and demographic, the surge in non-traditional work presents enormous barriers for economic mobility and social stability for those already struggling.

Given the current climate, concerns over the nature of job growth seem trivial. At 3.7 percent, unemployment is at its lowest in a century, multi-national corporations handed out post-tax cut bonuses, an ample number of openings, and average wages are slowly rising.

There is, however, a crucial distinction between assessing the health of the economy and well-being of the average employee. The latter set of metrics paint a vastly different picture. The typical American family has a lower net worth income than a typical family had two decades ago. Salaries continually fail to match productivity labels, and even with a recent uptick in wages, median weekly earnings have largely flatlined since 1979. According to an extensive Marketplace study, middle-class life has become 30 percent more expensive in the past 20 years. In short, aggregate figures fail to sum up the economic reality..

Additionally, utilizing a composite bird’s eye view of America overlooks the well-being and day to day lives of its citizens.

An increasingly discontinuous stream of cash flow and employer engagement further erodes the ability to climb out financial stagnation. Those lacking a stable paycheck are unable to plan ahead financially, incur unexpected health care costs, invest in assets that are able to significantly appreciate, or save for economically woeful periods. Nor are they able to afford additional education or job training workshops enabling them to advance their career (let alone have the time). Even if one were able to master hopping from one gig to another, sociologist Arne Kalleberg finds that half of all these positions vanish within a year.

In the ever-timely article Americans Want to Believe Jobs are the Solution to Poverty. They are Not Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond keenly notes that non-traditional work is not largely relegated to the confused and directionless Millennial and Gen X generations. Most working poor in these jobs are over 35. Fewer than five percent of non-traditional workers are between the ages of 16 and 19. And a vast majority of those hold a job to support their family.  

And what those families, and their kids, are experiencing are a life of crushing disarray. Nearly 40 percent of those gaining wages from alternative work know their schedule just a week or less in advance. As an effect, the ability to attend student-teacher conferences, sit down with the family for a full meal, and engage in community events slowly withers away. In a wide range of conversations I’ve had across the country with individuals with multiple contract jobs,  the nature of non-traditional work constructs obstacles for many, preventing them from being the best mother or father they could be. Because of where employment opportunities lie today, so many are denied the comfort of being with their family to dissect the day’s events.

Desmond discovered even startling consequences. Families unable to routinely make time for their families saw their adolescents more likely to engage in violent behavior and fare worse off academically in school. While adversity is critical to successful character building, a vital supplement to that harsh reality is a present, engaged, and attached adult presence providing them with love and hope regardless of economic circumstances. Erratic work schedules curtail a parent’s ability to provide their children with that sense of comfort. Even worse, temporary work has cornered Americans into deeper legal woes. More than 70 percent of low-income American households have been involved in eviction cases, labor law cases, and other civil legal disputes during the preceding year.

Deep within the marrow of this nation, is the fundamental belief that when markets harness self-interests the gains are absorbed by all of society. Opportunities for employment explode, and the path toward prosperity is clear as Lake Tahoe water on a summer day.

But when a massive restructuring of our labor market coincides with laudable aggregate gains, celebrated across all ideologies, financial hurdles countless individuals encounter are diluted or ignored.

Those who  claim to be statistically astute should consider if the economic metrics championed capture reality for those at the bottom.

And for those benefiting from the abundance of alternative work: the cheap labor at TaskRabbit, the convenience stemming food delivery services, the expedited shipping from Amazon, or the accessibility of within a moment’s notice transportation must question if an appetite for these products are universally beneficial in the long run, or a variable in constructing an underclass forever at the whims of the fiscally and professionally privileged.    

For the coastal dwellers claiming to be the paragon of progressive values and innovation, we must ask ourselves if our belief in our ideology is blinding us from examining whether of our day-to-day actions are contributing to the income inequality we passionately seek to eradicate. And for those claiming to be crusaders of neo-liberal values, must reconsider whether their economic doctrine is, metaphorically speaking, a rising tide that lifts all boats or is cruelly forcing so many off board to eventually drown at sea.

During a stop in Detroit last fall, an Lyft driver told me that his main job was being a comedian. For over thirty years, he criss-crossed the country entertaining crowds with hilarious stories of his time as an African-American  man finding the love of his life while fighting in Vietnam and having what he dubs as three “Blacknam” babies. Today, he has eight jobs and when we spoke he had worked thirty days straight.

I asked him if he found any humor in his situation.

He sighed and said, “Nah, not anymore. I’m broke. My friends are broke. And not matter how hard we work, we’re going to die broke. This shit ain’t funny anymore.”