Creating and Destroying “Good Jobs”

Dec 31, 2013

Creating and Destroying “Good Jobs”

          One of the most common refrains in discussions of public economic policy is the importance not only of creating “jobs” but of creating “good jobs,” usually meaning jobs with pay levels, benefits, and security that can support a middle class life style. For several decades following the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War, this usually meant, for blue collar workers, a unionized manufacturing job within one of the nation’s large corporations. For white collar workers and professionals, it also often meant a job within one of these large national corporations or within a government agency.

          It was these “good jobs,” both blue and white collar, that laid the basis for the expansion of the American middle class to include a very broad swath of American families. By the middle of the 20th century, commentators were talking about the “affluent society” that had developed as each generation seemed to move up the economic ladder, doing better than their parents had done.

          At some point over the last several decades, however, that economic pattern, which we had begun to believe was a unique characteristic of economic opportunity in the United States, began to unravel as rapidly as it had been created. The result has been increasingly difficult economic times not only for blue collar workers but also for professionals. More and more families have faced stagnating or declining economic opportunities as almost all of the benefits of rising economic productivity have gone to a tiny percentage of the very rich at the top of an increasingly steep economic pyramid.

          It is easy enough to blame this on the disappearance of the “good jobs” on which we previously relied. For instance, the shift of manufacturing jobs from “high wage” states in the North and West to “low wage” states in the South and Great Plains provide a graphic example of the “loss” of those “good jobs” from many communities.  As those jobs shifted geographically, wages and benefits fell, and, ultimately, many of those jobs moved overseas in the pursuit of an even cheaper workforce. That movement of “good jobs” to poorer and poorer locations should have taught us that there was nothing inherently “high wage” or “good” about those manufacturing jobs. There was an important social and political story behind what had made those jobs “good,” at least for a while.

          But it has not just been the “outsourcing” of manufacturing jobs to poorer nations that has undercut worker pay, benefits, and security in the United States. Those jobs that have remained in the United States also have been transformed in a variety of ways that have undermined what was previously attractive about them.

          The explosion in the use of temporary workers has been part of that path downward. Temporary employment agencies used to primarily provide workers to white collar occupations that faced uneven demands for their services. Now those “temp agencies” have become big businesses providing national manufacturing, construction, retail, and service companies with workers at lower wages, no benefits, and absolutely no job security. The “temporary” workers are not employed by the companies for whom they work. They are employed by the temp agency and “loaned” to the national firms. This is attractive to national firms because it allows them to adjust their number of “temporary” workers any time they want with no consequences to the firm.

          This shift away from business leaders taking some responsibility for the well-being of their workers has spread to professional jobs too. Skilled professionals are being fired and then hired back as independent “consultants” who are now “self-employed.” Both private firms and government agencies are taking advantage of this possibility. It allows them to stop paying benefits or even contributing to unemployment and worker disability insurance. Since their “workers” are not their employees, the company or government agency also has no formal commitment to those workers. There is no such thing as continuity of employment, seniority or tenure.

          Even universities have gotten into this game in a big way. Most universities now staff many of their classes with “adjunct,” part-time workers, most of them with advanced degrees, who are paid by the number of courses they teach. These “temporary” faculty members are kept on very short-term contracts, never knowing if the contracts will be renewed from semester to semester. They are also usually kept at less than half-time so that no benefits have to be paid to them. As a result, many adjunct faculty members commute between several different colleges or other jobs, working part-time at each of them, and bringing in an annual income that qualifies them for food stamps.

          It seems clear that there are no particular types of jobs that by their very nature provide high pay, good benefits, and relatively secure employment. In the past we socially create such economic opportunities through implicit and explicit social contracts between workers and employers. We laid the basis for that with regulations that protect the health and safety of workers and their rights to organize to negotiate with employers. We also create social safety nets that protected workers and their families during economic downturns and as they move from one job to another.

          That is how the “good jobs,” whose losses we now mourn, were created in the middle of the 20th century. These “good jobs” were not lost by accident. They were consciously destroyed by the deregulation mania of the last several decades as our political and business leaders have rushed to re-embrace 19th century-style lassie faire capitalism with its intense concentrations of wealth, rampant poverty among the working class, and repeated economic depressions.  This is a dangerous and destructive nostalgia for the bad old days that we should have no interest in repeating.