Kalleberg’s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Arne Kalleberg. 2011. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment. New York: Russell Sage Press.

We are all aware that the work world has changed and continues to evolve. Most of us tell stories in our classrooms and research that suggests that these changes have generated increased inequality and less secure work, but our stories tend to be unsystematic, based on disjointed and partial research. In his new book Arne Kalleberg systematically examines the entire range of change in work in the US since the 1970s. The book is comprehensive in its approach, examining trends in income, security, job complexity and autonomy, and flexibility. In doing so it generates a series of social facts that should become the basic knowledge base for all other stories of social change in employment.

Here are the facts as Kalleberg demonstrates them: work is now more precarious and less secure, the social contract between employers and employees has been broken, almost everyone now works in what we used to call secondary labor markets. Accompanying this perhaps most fundamental of changes there has been a linked decline in job satisfaction and workers decreasingly derive satisfaction from the intrinsic rewards of work and increasingly from scarce employment security. As is well known there has been increased income inequality, but less understood workers have at the same time become more skilled, have more intrinsic rewards at work and have more temporal flexibility. Even as the labor force has been up-skilled the polarization between workers of different skill levels has increased.

The book has an implicit theory of power; as the social contract between employers and workers is abrogated, rewards go to those individuals who are powerful enough in the market or the workplace to extract them. The erosion of both unions and norms of rewarding organizational citizenship leaves more people, even those with considerable skills, exposed to the market. The importance of collective notions of reciprocity and collective organization have declined as power becomes individualized.

Kalleberg’s job in this book is to document what happened, not to explain why and how. He points appropriately to the abrogation of the post-WWII capital-labor accord, the decline of unions, and the pressure of global competition on employers. He adds other explanations, less generally acknowledged in the literature, including the decline of native white men in workplaces, financialization of firm behavior, and the general rise of a neoliberal policy regime. It would be good to see sociologists spend more time sorting out these various causes as they unfolded over time. Right now institutional economic sociologists like to develop stories about institutional change, but tend to ignore work and inequality, in favor of managerial or technology oriented stories. Inequality scholars typically ignore the workplace and workplace scholars focus on fine grained analysis of specific workplaces. Kalleberg’s work in this book and elsewhere points out the pressing need to integrate the three faces of the OOW section.

So what is to be done now? Kalleberg suggests that the policy framework of flexicurity, popular in the Netherlands and Denmark, might point the way to a more humane labor market. In this model employers would be encouraged to be flexible in their investment and employment strategies in order to respond to global competition, but employees would receive income and skill security through the state during the resulting periods of unemployment. Kalleberg provides a policy model in flexicurity but does not outline a politics that would get neoliberal countries like the United States to adopt income and training security as policy goals. What is the contemporary process that would produce a flexicurity society? What set of causal forces will produce social inclusion and mutual responsibility at work and in the state? Is it the Occupy Wall Street movement? Union revitalization? Something else?

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