Saturday, November 9, 2013

We still are our jobs, but no longer by choice

Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times that because of “the economic crisis and technological change,” we are no longer our jobs. He argues that since workers have lost so much leverage, they often can no longer choose the professions they truly want to be in, and even if they are in their professions of choice, those careers are becoming less fulfilling because of their increasing demands, sinking pay, and vanishing job security.

You can see the loss of worker leverage in this chart from the St. Louis Fed:

Workers’ share of compensation has plunged to a record low compared to that of the owners of capital, such as property and stocks, and is only barely starting to recover.

There’s a valid argument to be made that we never should have been our jobs in the first place, and that we should define ourselves by our relationships, hobbies, and outside interests instead. Why should what we do to survive define who we are? We should work to live, not live to work.

So, taking that argument a step further, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that work isn't our only identity anymore. Perhaps we now can focus again on what matters most to us, since employers never would have hired us to pursue exactly what we wanted to do anyway.

But now that workers have lost leverage due to high unemployment, they also have less time to pursue outside interests. Making enough money to eat, have a roof over your head, and support your family usually takes precedence over everything else. And those necessities have become more precarious. So work is becoming an even bigger part of people’s identities, but not by choice.

With three unemployed people for every job opening, the jobless and the underemployed have to work even harder to find a job that matches their skills and former income: a job that may never materialize. And many full-time workers—even in elite jobs—have to labor under the assumption that their lives basically are their bosses’ to dictate. For many, working nonstop during the day, late, and during weekends has become the norm.

When workers are under that much pressure, they are less likely to pursue outside interests, be attentive to their friends and family, and cultivate new relationships. You can see it in the fact that Americans spend only 21 minutes per day socializing and 6 minutes on forms of leisure not covered by the American Time Use Survey. And you can see it in the fact that the U.S. marriage rate and birth rate have plunged to record lows. When fewer people are economically secure, fewer are willing to make long-term commitments.

So workers still are their jobs, due to the sheer amount of time they have to devote to work. But now it’s to try to maintain their standard of living, rather than because they love their jobs and can’t imagine doing anything else. When employers have all the leverage, they can make you spend so much time doing whatever they want that you don’t have enough time for anything else.

Thanks to the lousy economy, we aren't just making less money than we otherwise would have. We also have less time to become who we are meant to be.


  1. This is the world we've been voting for over the past 40 years.

    At least, it isn't clear that as voters we've been opposing the trends that have left us in this place.

    So the question I have is: who's responsible?

    Good post.

  2. Enjoyed reading, Bonnie. I hope you write often, and are enjoying grad school.
    Best, Jahnabi

  3. Hopefully more of your generation will come to realize this. It seems to have passed largely unnoticed previously.

  4. Good post.

    I think the FT is on to something in terms of how the loss of job security and good salaries means there's no such thing as a 'company man,' though I tend to agree with you that their general premise we're now more defined outside of work is bunk.

    FREDgeek question -- why is there a spike in the graph you posted between 1996 and 2000. I don't think we had such high levels of salary inflation in the late 90s, so what gives? Did labor force participation really go up that much? Or does that reflect bubble years stock-based compensation going to executive employees?

  5. In the first sentence you wrote "we are no longer ARE jobs".

    Thanks for the blog, and I would like to add:

    "Workers have lost leverage due to high unemployment" --- in an over-saturated labor market, it's also because of H-1B visas displacing tech workers, the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, and because of the steady declining membership in labor unions since they peaked in 1979.

    "Find a job that matches their skills" --- I'd say, especially when college grads are bartending and driving cabs --- taking jobs that high school drop-outs and those with GEDs would usually take (now THEY can't find work!)

    "Working nonstop during the day, late, and during weekends has become the norm" --- and dual household incomes are now needed just to pay the rent (instead of just trying to put your kids in school or saving for retirement with "extra" income).

    ALSO: By using the broader measurement of unemployment (the U-6 or the revised U-7 rate) there is 1 job opening for every 6 unemployed .

  6. The chart looks like a random walk to me.

    1. The chart would look a lotlesslike a random walk if it were somehow adjusted to reflect MEDIAN compensation of labor rather than total. Even so, there's a big shift after the seventies, and it looks to me like labor compensation rose in every single period of Democratic Presidential administrations and fell in every single period of Republican Presidential administrations. That's probably not random!

    2. Looks can be deceiving? :)

      But, imho, I think there is a certain amount of return-to-the-mean. Not by magic but because, eventually, people revolt (labour share too low)... or capital stop being invested (capital share too low).

  7. Who is "we"? People live in different economies! It seems likely that for the FT guy "we" means people way above the median. For you, "we" means more the median or average person. Anyway, your story would probably have been true even before the fnancial crisis. Sure, it's worse now, but when median wages have been flat (more or less) for forty years, it's hard for me to see people's identifying with their jobs as a good thing!