Entering the Freelance Life
Here's how the same magic trick works a little higher up the food chain.
Greg Feldman was a full-time professional doing computer graphics for an educational publisher which produces test preparation materials for school districts. One day during the recession, his company laid off some 20 staffers including him. As far as I can tell, its business wasn't declining. (Standardized test prep must be one of the last things desperate school districts cut.)
"When I got home I went into panic mode," Feldman remembered. "I said I better redo my resume before the weekend. And I did. But there were a couple of openings I could have applied for that day—one full time, one long-term temp. But I waited till after the weekend to send it in. That was in November  and this is February . I'm on the websites every day and I haven't come across any other regular staff positions since those two."
Four years later Feldman was piecing together his living by combining a steady but low-paying part-time job with freelance gigs. He still considers himself unemployed. Whenever we speak he enumerates the new computer graphics programs he's mastered and asks me about job leads.
But is Feldman really unemployed by post-recession standards? He may not have a full-time job with his old company, but neither does just about anyone else who did the work he used to do for them. It's by no means impossible, I once suggested to Feldman, that he himself might wind up working for his old firm through a subcontractor.
"Possible but not likely," he answered. "What I heard is that they send that work overseas now."
The Good Old Switcheroo
When America's industrial workers were hit hard in the 1970s and 1980s, the excuse for breaking their unions, lowering their wages, and outsourcing their work was that we had to compete with foreign manufacturers. But not to worry, it was then suggested, there might be tough times ahead for a few blue-collar troglodytes who couldn't be retrained, but the rest of us would soon be data manipulators in a booming postindustrial society.
Feldman is as postindustrial as you can get and his former company doesn't even compete with foreign firms. It seems, though, that corporate headquarters no longer needs excuses or explanations to make workers cheaper and more replaceable.
The recession itself certainly doesn't explain such job transformations. Traditionally, during recessions employers reduced hours or laid people off in a way that would enable them to reconstitute an experienced work force when business picked up. In the meantime, they competed on price and took less profit. As a result, the share of national income that went to owners and investors used to decline during such periods, while the share that went to workers actually rose.
No longer. Ina's and Greg's employers used the downturn to dump entire departments and reorganize themselves so that the same work, the same jobs, requiring the same skills, would henceforth, in good times and bad, be done by contingent workers. Many other companies seem to be doing the same thing. One sign of that: during the course of the Great Recession corporate profits went up by 25%-30%, while wages as a share of national income fell to their lowest point since that number began to be recorded after World War II.
According to the latest Labor Department figures, 65% of the jobs added to the economy in July 2013 were part-time. The average hourly wage fell slightly. Interpreters of those statistics will make it sound as though it's simply a matter of factories firing and burger joints hiring. That, at least, would be a situation that could be reversed over time. If, however, golden jobs are being transmuted into lead by the reverse alchemy described in this piece, then they're not coming back gradually, certainly not without a growing labor movement and a fight.
I checked back recently with Ina Bromberg to see if anything had changed for the saleswomen in her store as the nation crawled into what's now called "recovery."
"The hours are creeping back up," she said, and pointed to an irony. "When they started all this they told us that short shifts make us more efficient. Now, they're letting a few people work, six, seven, even eight hours some days."
I asked if benefits and commission were also creeping back.
"Of course not!" she answered.
"It's sad in a way," Ina mused. "If one of these young women gets eight hours for a while, she'll think she has a regular job. None of them can remember what a regular job was like."
Ina is describing a perfect sleight of hand. Good jobs disappeared into bad jobs so deftly that hardly anyone has noticed the switcheroo. Soon enough the zombie jobs that replace the real ones will move among us as if they were normal. If you sense that there's something missing, there must be something wrong with you. Get with the program. We're becoming a freelance nation.
Barbara Garson is the author of a series of books describing American working lives at historical turning points, including All the Livelong Day (1975), The Electronic Sweatshop (1988), and Money Makes the World Go Around (2001). Her new book is Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession (Doubleday). To catch Garson discussing her latest book on Moyers & Company, click here.
[Note: "Ina Bromberg" and "Greg Feldman" are not the actual names of the two workers quoted in this piece.]
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