Temporary labor in the gig economy

Temporary labor in the gig economy

I’m really curious what y’all think of this video (embedded above) that’s been floating around recently.

I know that the rich use wealth to create more wealth. I know. But I also know that such profits are increasingly created by the work of thousands of temps and grunt workers, many of whom don’t share in even a fraction of the rewards of their work.

And I can’t shake what I’ve seen in my own temping days. Just out of college, I took a standardized test scoring job that advertised at $12 an hour, 1-2 month contracts, college grads only. We sat in a barren room supervised by a weaselly man in a tall chair, as we cranked out ‘scores’ for creative writing and historical understanding in ways that measured not insight, but how well the student was prepped for the test.

And I still remember the people around me – all college grads and most competent members of the middle class.  Artists needing cash, mothers needing money for their children. A clever woman with a master’s degree in economics. My grandma’s church friend, who had cancer and wore colorful hats. A lawyer from Boston, a gentle man with his face slid sideways by a stroke. There was a curly-haired brunette looking for a full-time teaching post, who cheerily called in sick when she had interviews. A beautiful Latina with a degree but no job.

And most heartbreaking of all, the father of my friend Anna*. Todd* was a deeply intelligent man, had worked in banking and social services, before being downsized. Still healthy, he was nearing fifty and couldn’t get a permanent position again. So here he was in this barren overheated room, stooped over a computer and typing out results on fifth-grade essays, trying to keep a mortgage above water. But even with his wife’s work, his temp income wasn’t enough to keep paying the bills. They were a good family, conservative and financially responsible – but they still lost the house.

And I can’t believe that was necessary. I can’t believe that Todd should be discarded from the workforce like that, or the lawyer, or the cancer lady, or the beautiful Latina. But  I think those people are pictures of the middle class we see in the video above. These are the professionals with degrees, poise, and experience, who slip underwater after one layoff, one bout of temporary illness, one restructuring of a company. And this is the ‘fear of falling” that journalist Barbara Ehrenreich talks about, that affects us all.

And isn’t that what a safety net is for?

Owning the Future

Now when talk­ing about inequal­ity, I’m not just call­ing for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion. As red-state Amer­i­cans, yep, we’re very proudly not about gov­ern­ment fixin’ things.

But I find it very con­cern­ing that the top 1% own our econ­omy, more than they did twenty or thirty years ago. On the left and the right, pow­er­ful com­pa­nies and rich peo­ple own our gov­ern­ment, through their lob­by­ing efforts, their ide­olo­gies, and their indus­tries. So in effect, they own us, and it gets harder and harder to ful­fill that Amer­i­can dream of set­ting your own course, your own eco­nomic future, your own terms for your own work.  Most of us, even after edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­ence, are only in a posi­tion to sign what­ever an employer offers.

Con­tract crew trans­plants seedlings

As I’ve cov­ered before, David Grae­ber defines social and eco­nomic free­dom as the abil­ity to sus­tain rela­tion­ships with oth­ers. But that’s what slaves and temps don’t have. It’s what some­one with a forced relo doesn’t have, and what the guy work­ing two shifts to pay for his kids’ lunches doesn’t have.

That means most Amer­i­cans don’t really have the free­dom or flex­i­bil­ity to con­tribute to the econ­omy and our com­mu­ni­ties, to decide to sup­port some­one in need, to drop out of the work­force and care for the sick, to stop and men­tor those who want to join the mid­dle class.

Free­dom, as Amer­i­cans, is what we hope to afford every­one who is will­ing to con­tribute and take care of them­selves and oth­ers. But if it often feels like we, as man­agers, fam­ily mem­bers, vot­ers, or pro­fes­sion­als, are just dog­pad­dling to keep our heads above water, are we free at all?

Money, Time, Freedom

There’s an inter­est­ing free ebook online by Mark McGuin­ness, who sug­gests that what any crafts­man, inno­va­tor, or entre­pre­neur needs is three things:

“1. Free­dom — to do “mean­ing­ful work” when you want, when you want and how you want it. Not just in hol­i­days and spare time…

2. Money — to main­tain your inde­pen­dence and fund your cre­ative projects…

3. Time — to spend… explor­ing the world and allow­ing your mind to wan­der in search of new ideas…

“With­out money, you don’t have much free­dom, because you have to spend your time chas­ing cash. With­out time off, money doesn’t buy you a lot of free­dom. And if you’re doing some­thing you hate for a liv­ing, it doesn’t mat­ter how big your salary is, or how much hol­i­day you get. You still feel trapped…”

I would add that peo­ple also need some incen­tives to deliver valu­able results for fam­ily sus­te­nance or soci­ety, so that this money, free­dom, and time are used rea­son­ably well. But it’s a good point. If we’re watch­ing our money, time, and free­dom erode as a peo­ple, it becomes harder to sus­tain the inde­pen­dent ethos that got us to where we are. So what will sus­tain us?


So my argu­ment is that, while main­tain­ing incen­tives for use­ful work, we need to act deci­sively as cit­i­zens to recruit those with money into invest­ing back into our com­mu­ni­ties. We need terms of employ­ment that level the play­ing field between employer and employee. We need to pre­serve oppor­tu­ni­ties for inno­va­tion for both cit­i­zens and immigrants.

I don’t think this can be a top-down gov­ern­ment man­date, but I do think we should be able to expect this of the pow­er­ful play­ers in our soci­ety, or par­tic­i­pa­tor gov­er­nance becomes rather a mirage. So how could we sets up con­di­tions to reward inno­va­tion but pro­vide base­line safety nets for all cit­i­zens who are doing what they can? Some ideas might be:

  • Break up Rockefeller-like wealth by fis­cally encour­ag­ing the top 1% to spread the wealth through foun­da­tions, grants, and invest­ment in promis­ing ini­tia­tives, rather than lose it to the government.
  • Issue tax ben­e­fits to busi­nesses who invest good pay and ben­e­fits in all employ­ees, includ­ing tem­po­rary ones; penal­ties on those who skirt the law and churn through employ­ees and interns with­out due compensation.
  • Expand pro­grams (Peace Corps, Ameri­Corps, CCC) for new grad­u­ates and older folk to con­tribute to soci­ety while being pro­duc­tively engaged in work.
  • Some­how address the bur­den of car­ing for the sick and elderly that takes so many resources from fam­i­lies, busi­nesses, and the government?
  • Restrict unpaid intern­ships to 10 hours a week, and work­weeks to 35 hours, with manda­tory over­time pay for all beyond that, to cre­ate finan­cial incen­tives to employ more peo­ple rather than less.
  • Issue stan­dard ben­e­fits on a pro-rated basis to all part-time and temp work­ers, again stop­ping the cost-cutting that makes fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties vul­ner­a­ble to disaster.
  • Reward­ing those who chose to vol­un­teer in their com­mu­ni­ties, rather than spend their free time in extra money-making or product-consuming.

So I’m not say­ing we wrest money from rich peo­ple. But I do know that fear and uncer­tainty, want­ing to be rec­og­nized and noticed and approved of – all of these make us grasp and hold onto money, even those good peo­ple devoted to God and com­mu­nity. So I don’t think the solu­tion can be just for each indi­vid­ual to man-up or con­fess; it also means com­ing into a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship with each other and with our coun­try and our soci­ety. To engage in prac­tices that loosen the money we’ve got out from our hearts, espe­cially among the mid­dle and upper classes.

<3 & $$

Hearts and Money, via flickr.

That’s not the direc­tion we’re cur­rently going as a soci­ety. And we see the prob­lem before us.

So how do we make col­lec­tive deci­sions to turn that around?

Thoughts? Leave a note here!