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Tag Archives: bad jobs

Walmart checkout

Image: Walmart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

By Herbert J Gans

One of the lesser known facts about the post-recession economy is that while new jobs are being created at near record levels, a significant number are bad jobs. No one knows exactly how many, but in April 2014,the National Employment Law Project, which measured job quality by industry wage level, reported that 44 percent of jobs created (pdf) between 2010 and 2014 were in lower wage industries, compared to 56 percent in mid wage and high wage ones.

The proportion of bad jobs was probably even higher since the study set the low wage floor two dollars above the current federal minimum wage. We also know that growing industries like health and other care as well as tourist related enterprises and many small manufacturing firms all pay minimum wages.

The trend may not even be new, for there is some evidence that the rising proportion of bad jobs goes back as far as the 1970s. John Schmitt and Janelle Jones of the Center for Economic Policy Research estimate the ability and willingness of employers to create good jobs has decreased (pdf) by a third since 1979.

More important, the forces behind the creation of bad jobs remain in place. Global competition with low wage countries, outsourcing of American jobs, increasing computerization and robotization, the political influence of corporate and Wall Street firms and the weakening of unions continue. Moreover, many industries and occupations that depend on low wage workers are still expanding. Consequently, the economy may continue to produce too many bad jobs even when it is also producing record profits for many employers and their shareholders.

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Walmart workerBad jobs are usually defined as those with low pay, little autonomy, and few benefits. Add to the list irregular hours. As Steven Greenhouse describes in his New York Times article on the part-time labor force, workers today are suffering from erratic scheduling. In the service industry, employers routinely cut their hours or send them home early when customer traffic slows. On the flipside, workers are required to be on call or stay late during especially busy times. Erratic hours not only mean income insecurity, but also result in the inability to do anything else, like search for a second job or take a class.

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US inequality

Rising income inequality in the United States has become big news over the last few years. Sociology and left political economy have always seen inequality as a structural outcome necessarily produced by the normal operation of capitalist economies. The recent concern shown by mainstream economists and some politicians is more curious, given that – with the exception of a three-year period in the 1990s and again in the 2000s – income inequality has risen steadily from 1968 to the present.

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In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.

Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.

A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!

Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.

In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.

Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.

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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.

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Adam Davidson is a co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, a team of economics reporters that produces podcasts and segments for various NPR shows and the extraordinary weekly public radio show, This American Life. Davidson and his Planet Money team have produced some of the most penetrating and informative reporting on contemporary finance. Indeed, their reporting on finance is unrivalled, serving to demystify the murky world of derivatives, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps and the like for a broad public audience – in the process playing a critical role for democratic debate.

And Davidson can really tell a good story. So good that he has recently been given a new platform for a news analysis, his It’s the Economy column for The New York Times Magazine. Unfortunately, since Davidson has turned from reporting on finance to news analysis focusing on the wider economy, he has increasingly traded the rich journalism that made his name – carefully and clearly explaining the esoteric workings of the financial world through first-rate investigative reporting – for commentaries on the broader economy that present embarrassingly thin analyses based on the oversimplified fantasy world of textbook economics and recycled tropes of American exceptionalism.

Davidson’s fascination with mainstream Economics got the better of him again in last weekend’s Magazine column, in which he praises the entrepreneurial efficiency of an alleged craft revival. Based on a couple of interviews with “successful entrepreneurs” making hand-crafted beef jerky or precision manufactured components,  Davidson argues that a new breed is following “what seems like an ancient business model: making things by hand,” rejecting “the high-volume, low-margin commodity business.”

But, we learn, “the craft approach is actually something new — a happy refinement of the excesses of our industrial era plus a return to the vision laid out by capitalism’s godfather, Adam Smith.” The craft revival is a further realization of the Smithean division of labor, a new round of efficiency improvements based on “hyperspecialization.” Indeed, so efficient is the American economy that “the average American leads a shockingly good life by any historical or international standard” and “Huge numbers of middle-class people are now able to make a living specializing in something they enjoy, including creating niche products for other middle-class people who have enough money to indulge in buying things like high-end beef jerky.”

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