The Rise of Temporary Work

It is a difficult fact to face but businesses do not want to be stuck with most of their employees. There are the very creative and productive workers, of course, the ones essential to their profitability and success. They do want those. But then there are all those who hold down jobs that require health insurance, workers compensation, Social Security contributions, retirement funds, who are covered by anti-discrimination laws, who file complaints, and so forth.

Some day, robots and computers may be devised to take their place, but right now technology is not fully up to replacing many of the functions that still require real people.

Recently, a professor of sociology, blogging for The New York Times, noted that the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other. This trend is so strong that low wage, temporary jobs “threaten to become the norm.” He noted that employers that could have invested in their work forces, instead have “generally taken the low road: lowering wages and cutting benefits, converting permanent employees into part-time and contingent workers, busting unions and subcontracting and outsourcing jobs.”

The trend towards temporary work started after WWII when white middle class woman started working for “pin money.” As an executive for Kelly Girls, one of the first organizations to seize on this trend, put it at the time: “The typical Kelly Girl… doesn’t want full-time work, but she’s bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat.” (See “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy.”)

That was before the earning power of spouses became essential and two-income families became the norm. But the precedent has been established. Now many who desperately need work are forced to take these low-paying jobs. “Temp” used to define the desire of the worker for short-term employment. Now it defines the desire of business to avoid commitment.

Temp workers are a significant portion of the one-third of working adults who do not earn enough to support themselves and their families, according to the Census Bureau. But unless you have the Bureau’s statistical tools, you may never see them. They are hiding in plain sight, not “unemployed,” not receiving benefits, indeed increasingly viewed as a part of our “recovery.”

This highlights the role that our classifications play in defining social reality. If the unemployed is defined as those who are looking for work, to cite another example, then the millions who have given up looking are no longer “unemployed.” If poverty is defined as a certain level of income, then those who don’t qualify are not impoverished. If banks are fined for questionable practices, then the bankers who defined and authorized those practices have done nothing wrong.

Increasingly we are aware how the news is “spun.” But we don’t often stop to notice how much our fundamental social realities are being spun as well – by definition.