The financial insecurity facing so many Americans in today’s gig economy is not the result of startups and their new apps, or even of technology in general. Temp work is the result of four decades of deliberate decisions by executives in corporate America — decisions that changed the nature of work and of capitalism itself. So explains Louis Hyman — a professor of economic history at Cornell, and Jeff Schechtman’s guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Hyman takes us back to the 1960s and 70s, when the rise of conglomerates and management consultants brought about a reorganization of the American corporation and a profound change in the relationship of employees to their workplace.
Hyman shows how corporate America traded stability for short-term profits. At the same time, he challenges the myth of the idyllic post–World War II workplace, arguing that it was only “idyllic” for successful white men and basically repressive for everyone else.
He reminds Schechtman that the office and factory of that time offered stable paychecks, but not much self-determination. Today's economy may be volatile, but it offers the possibility of a new kind of individual freedom and a new kind of individualized capitalism. In fact, Hyman says, the corporation may no longer even be necessary to capitalism.
According to Hyman, over the last ten years, 94 percent of net new jobs have appeared outside of traditional employment, and approximately one-third of the workforce now depends on this alternative world of work, either as a primary or supplementary source of income.
He also points out that today’s corporations, like Starbucks and Walmart, are really the drivers of the gig economy, as a direct result of their failure to meet employees’ need for a “living wage.”
He refers to Uber and other gig economy players as the “waste product of the service economy,” because people drive for ride-hailing services or take temp jobs to provide the income that their full-time jobs don’t.
Despite the downside of the gig economy, Hyman argues that the burgeoning expansion of temporary work holds the promise of a complete reinvention of capitalism and economic freedom. If we can get it right, he says, it can be an exciting new world.
Louis Hyman is the author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (Viking, August 21, 2018).