Friday, March 24, 2017

The “Gig Economy” and the American Work Ethic

Wages, insurance, guaranteed work? Screw you, who needs 'em?

Here’s a riddle for you: how can we call somebody “manager” of a facility if we never see him? I wondered that when the titular factory floor manager visited our shift one night. And when I say “one night,” I mean for forty-five minutes at the beginning of the shift. In over three years working third shift, I never saw our supposed factory manager before or after that all-crew meeting. Third shift was organizationally disconnected from the rest of the company.

Halfway through that meeting, a virtual monologue of bromides reheated from Stephen Covey and Kenneth Blanchard, the “manager” asked the assembled workers: “How many of you have second jobs outside this company?” About a quarter of workers raised a hand. “See there? That’s what I call initiative. When my son asks for a bigger allowance, I tell him to be more like the workers at [Company Name] and get a job. Take responsibility for yourself.”

Let’s be clear. In a room entirely comprised of adults working full time, with frequent mandatory overtime shifts, this manager considered it an indicator of high ethical character that roughly one in four workers cannot make ends meet. These workers, the majority of whom have spouses, partners, and/or minor children at home, spend half their waking hours inside this man’s facility, then decamp to another entire job to cover their bills.

Earlier this week, New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino published a short article, “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.” Tolentino quotes PR from inside “sharing economy” companies like Lyft, which praises a pregnant contract driver who picked up another fare after labor began, and Fiverr, which encourages freelancers to forego sleep. The images are pretty terrifying, especially if you amortize actual pay across work done.

But frankly, it isn’t surprising to anybody who’s worked jobs with little growth potential recently. Readers may recall the notorious McDonald's Employee Budget, which assumed workers had two jobs, while including no money for groceries or childcare. The jobs available to people lacking skills or connections, or who simply cannot reconcile their skillset with local economic demands, literally assume you can’t make ends meet on full-time employment.

Companies like Fiverr, which charges five bucks for skilled actions, are merely the culmination of economic trends, since the 1970s, that have progressively separated work from reward. They literally invite workers to charge five dollars for services like graphic design, a field that often charges in the hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of dollars for services rendered. These costs aren’t unreasonable, because buyers often reap rewards disproportionate to the value of actual performed labor.

Political cartoonist Ted Rall. Click to see source.

If you pay five dollars for, say, the cover design on your next self-published book, you’re either getting a substandard product done hastily in Microsoft Paint, or you’re profiting off somebody else’s desperation. The latter option, to the current economy, isn’t so bad. Thing is, when Tolentino associates this trend exclusively with the “gig economy,” she’s arguably missing the larger point. This isn’t a niche flaw; it has become characteristic of our entire working economy.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney last week defended President Trump’s proposed budget, which controversially cuts block grants to school lunch programs and Meals on Wheels to near-zero, by calling it “compassionate.” This is common reasoning in conservative circles: refusing to protect the poor gives them incentives to work. If there isn’t a floor through which people are prevented from falling, the logic goes, people will work even harder to prevent their own total economic collapse.

Yet at that same factory where I worked, where the absentee manager praised employees who needed second jobs to feed their children, I watched one young woman forced to quit a job she actually loved. She received a merit-based pay raise, which gave her just enough money to no longer qualify for protected childcare subsidies. Forced to choose between paying more out-of-pocket or leave her kids home alone unsupervised, she had only one choice: find another job that paid either more or less.

The gig economy makes visible something that’s been real but concealed for two generations now: Americans no longer value work. We give lip service to the American work ethic, to myths of self-reliance and bootstrapping. But our structural refusal to pay for the things we buy reveals our actual core values. My manager, and the PR flack who praised a Lyft driver working through birth pains, couldn’t have been clearer: If you’re poor, go fuck yourself. That’s all you deserve.

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