The corrosive impacts of job insecurity


by Allison J. Pugh

Income inequality is a major focus in today’s national agenda.  From the White House to the campaign trail to the halls of Davos, political and economic elites are joining a public conversation about the vast disparities between the top and bottom of the economic ladder.

But these conversations about income inequality lack one crucial focus:  job insecurity.

For lower income workers, studies indicate that knowing you’ll have a job next week is as important as the size of the paycheck that’s coming.  My own research shows that the impact of job insecurity extends beyond the individual worker or the workplace, and is felt at home, by spouses, parents, children and others.  The withdrawal of employer commitment raises the salience of commitment in all aspects of life.

“I don’t believe in sticking with something that’s not working,” Fiona Parker told me.  A white office worker with some college, she has had more than 10 jobs since her teenaged son Jimmy was born, and four long-term relationships with men.  “I’m committed as long as it’s good. I’m not committed to anything bad.”

Fiona represents one way people respond to insecure work – by declaring independence from throwaway jobs and faithless men, shrinking her circle of commitment to just her son and her mother, casting the same gimlet eye at home that employers cast at work.  She’s one of 80 people I spoke to about what we owe each other at work and at home, in a study that included the affluent and less advantaged, in stable and insecure work.

Fiona is not alone.   Research shows that work instability impedes our capacity to stay in long-term relationships.  Insecure workers run a greater risk of marital dissolution.  Job insecurity also affects people’s propensity to marry in the first place. A Pew survey reported that women preferred mates with a steady job, while a recent Berkeley study found that union membership signals job stability, which enhances members’ marriageability compared to other working-class men.

The issue here is not so much whether Fiona is right or wrong – after all, why should she settle for ‘something that’s not working’?  Nor are she and women like her setting too high a bar.  The problem is that the existing job structure, coupled with gross inequalities in the impact of insecurity, makes it difficult for low-wage, unstably employed men to present themselves as good bets for the future, and for these men and their partners to forge lasting relationships.

While politicians and pundits lament the casualization of intimate life among less advantaged people, it seems that they spend little time worrying about the casualization of work, or its impact on families.

Yet here is where inequality bares its teeth. With advantaged workers, “insecurity” can look like “flexibility,” as they jump from company to company in search of a better match for their skills.  Highly educated workers are less likely than blue-collar or low-level service workers to suffer job displacement, and when they do, they experience less of a pay loss, according to a study by sociologists Neil Fligstein and Taekjin Shin.

To be sure, those at the top are working long hours as their jobs have intensified, but they get a distinct wage premium for doing so, and they are more satisfied at work. Job insecurity is less corrosive for the affluent at work, and not coincidentally, they experience less strife at home, where they are more likely to enjoy enduring unions.

Not all low-wage workers are like Fiona.  Some respond to insecurity by running towards commitment, instead of away from it.  Nicki Jones, an African-American single mother who is raising her niece’s daughter along with three of her own, cares for her bedridden mother despite suffering from bouts of fibromyalgia herself.  “The way I was raised, you do what it takes for family,” she declared.

Recently laid off, however, she’s finding it hard to continue being the one upon whom everyone relies.  “I was the family pillar, you know,” she said ruefully, but since she lost her job, “it was like a rude awakening, a smack in the face. You can’t do it.”

For less advantaged workers, the conventional duty of “taking care of one’s own” can be particularly onerous, not just because needs expand under duress, but because the supply of care tightens in uncertain conditions.

The differential impact of job insecurity also extends to the way we raise our children. Research tells us that when parents hold precarious jobs,  children grow distracted, worsening their academic performance, even turning them into skeptics about hard work as the key to success. Job insecurity also changes childrearing, as fathers’ job instability is linked to inconsistent discipline.

While both rich and poor told me about their hopes that their children would grow up to be “flexible,” the affluent wanted them to be able to take advantage of the opportunities they would encounter, while the less advantaged wanted them to be prepared for potential calamities.

Many Americans view job insecurity as inevitable, accepting it as the necessary but regrettable price of staying competitive in a global economy.  We have long known the impact of job precariousness on the worker at work – the depressed wages, lower job satisfaction and increased health problems that ensue – but these are costs Americans have accepted, however reluctantly, given the conventional wisdom about “necessary insecurity.”

Now, economists are pointing to the adverse financial impacts borne by firms after layoffs, such as a fall in stock values and productivity declines.  As one recent review reported: “A majority of the studies found that downsizing announcements resulted in negative wealth effects” for shareholders.  It is time to reassess our stance towards job precariousness: maybe all that insecurity isn’t so necessary after all.  In fact, maybe it is actually harmful, both socially and economically.

Perhaps too it is time to push forward with policies that encourage longer-term employment. Such policies are of three kinds.  The first rewards employers who want to offer stable work, through such ideas as “short-time compensation,” or the use of unemployment insurance to enable work-sharing instead of layoffs.  The second builds stronger relationships between employers and workers, including incentives for workplace training, or an improved accountability framework holding employers responsible even for subcontracted or outsourced labor.  The third makes it easier for workers to do their jobs well, such as paid parental leave or measures to improve unpredictable scheduling.

But there’s reason for skepticism about any policies that fall short of those that amplify labor’s voice, hardly a whisper now with only 6.6% private sector unionization. Other rich countries with higher union density take steps to enable both employer flexibility and worker security, through income supports and retraining.  In the U.S., better enforcement of labor law provisions that protect the right to organize would enable workers to slow down or impede layoffs, or to shape how they happen.  Unions also help to remind employers about their multiple stakeholders.

Americans are increasingly aware that income inequality has grown, with about two-thirds agreeing that the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past decade.  One major contributor to that yawning gap is job insecurity, and job insecurity – and its impact on families – is one of the reasons why income inequality matters.  When political candidates start talking about insecurity, that’s when you know they are serious about inequality.

Allison Pugh is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

Image: ecks ecks via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



1 comment
  1. Interesting stuff. I’m curious as to whether the problems associated with job insecurity stem more from insecurity in being employed as a daily activity or the income it provides? This seems pretty important if one were trying to craft policy to minimize negative effects.

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