As longtime readers know, we have a standing interest in the emerging norms of flexible capitalism, and what those norms mean for the future of work. Our interest in the rise of flexible work tracks two concurrent and opposing trends. On the one hand, flexible capitalism is benefitting highly skilled knowledge-economy workers, who increasingly see “flexibility” as permission to work in any and all circumstances—and seem to enjoy doing so. As Ryan Avent put it in a piece we highlighted in Vol. 63, “The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not.”
On the other hand, flexible capitalism has led to the rise of economic insecurity for a growing number of Americans. Automation technology and our growing dependence upon contingent labor are reconfiguring both the job market and cultural expectations about what makes for a “good job” (see Vol. 48: What is a Good Job? and Vol. 46: On Thrift). Our basic conviction is that the bargain of “sweat for security,” which has been central to the postwar economic order, has been called off. No longer can workers expect their loyalty to be reciprocated by their employers.
This week we highlight pieces on the particular challenges of unemployment and underemployment. These pieces show that for all the economic abundance our nation enjoys, flexible capitalism has resulted not in the abolition of misery, but merely its migration. For this reason, we must attend to the ways in which these shifts in the labor market render the social challenges of economic insecurity, persistent inequality, and social immobility all the more difficult to address.
Our first piece begins with a somewhat distressing claim. “The year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone,” writes conservative economist Nicholas Eberstadt; “the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” Writing for Commentary, Eberstadt, author of the recently published book Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, argues that conventional accounts of unemployment tell us far too little about the state of work in America. Even as Eberstadt admits that the “civilian unemployment rate looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era,” he reminds us that the official “unemployment rate” only measures people actively seeking work (and failing to find it). For this reason, he characterizes the unemployment rate as “an antique index devised for some earlier and increasingly distant war.” The current war, Eberstadt suggests, is not just against America’s first true labor-less economic recovery (2009–present), but against longer-term downward trends in the American labor force participation rate, particularly for men in the prime working years of their life. As he puts it, “21st-century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealthholders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers.”
As might be expected, the effects of declining labor force participation are widespread and concerning. In a white paper published in October of 2016, Princeton economist Alan Krueger pairs employment trends with survey data on the emotional well-being of nonworking Americans. Krueger concludes that “prime age men who are out of the labor force report less happiness and more sadness in their days than do unemployed men.” A substantial portion (nearly half) of these men also use pain medication on a daily basis—and of these men, a further survey suggests that two-thirds are taking prescription pain medications (see Vol. 78: On Drugs & Pain in America).
Taken together, these facts point to what Eberstadt calls the the “terrible contradiction of economic life” in America’s “Second Gilded Age.” This contradiction is a fundamental misalignment of the main indicators of economic prosperity: wealth, output, and employment. As Eberstadt suggests, while some divergence always exists between them, these indicators tend to rise or fall together. When a nation’s economy grows, we expect to see expansion of employment and increases in household wealth. Likewise, when employment statistics fall, so too should measurements of household wealth and economic growth. What we are witnessing in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, however, is massive growth in wealth coupled with stagnant economic growth and a sustained crisis of underemployment.
Debates about the best way to measure the depth of this crisis are ongoing and should continue. But the debate about its existence is largely settled. Eberstadt’s critics are right to point out that shifting expectations regarding advanced education and some broader demographic trends may shed some more positive light upon the trends he identifies. And yet, the shift from the postwar economic order toward a new, flexible capitalism has left our nation with more wealth that is distributed wildly unevenly while a decreasing percentage of the population is engaged in paid labor to attain whatever wealth they possess; and since technological developments threaten to render more and more American jobs redundant, this economic insecurity for some American workers is likely to spread.
When asked to comment upon policy solutions to this crisis, Eberstadt has been remarkably coy (as in this brief NPR interview from last week). One proposal that has been gaining momentum in economic circles is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). In this scheme, rather than addressing unemployment and underemployment primarily through job creation and job retraining efforts, policymakers concede that “full employment” is neither attainable nor necessarily desirable. Instead, the misalignment of wealth, growth, and work is addressed by attaching a minimum threshold of benefits and income to citizenship itself. Some version of this proposal is now being studied by a number of academics and Silicon Valley companies and, over time, has attracted proponents across the political spectrum. Over the next two weeks, we’ll take up our own examination of its merits and limitations.