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by Alex J Wood

‘I had to change hours. . . I felt really sick, it just hit me, it hit all of us.’ These are the words that Colin used to describe the painful reality of workplace temporal flexibility for many workers. And it is an experience which is becoming increasingly common.

In the US, economists Lonnie Golden found that 28% of workers report having schedules with variable start and end times. A similar situation exists in Europe where around 35% of workers report facing changes in their work schedule.

The growth of flexible scheduling has caused significant public debate in UK. In particular, the growth of zero hour contracts, a form of employment which does not guarantee any hours of work, figured prominently in the 2015 general election. Labour party leader Ed Miliband coined the term ‘zero-zero Britain’ to highlight the unfairness of a ‘recovery’ in which the ‘rich paid zero tax while the poor received zero hours contracts’.

In response to such criticism the UK government drew upon think tank research to argue that such flexible scheduling was actually a good for workers, enabling them to ‘flex their work… [and thus be] more satisfied with their work life balance.’

In a recently published ethnographic study, I sought to evaluate whether such flexible employment could truly be considered beneficial for work-life balance.

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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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