Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Freedom to Starve: The New Job Economy

A recent LA Times Op-Ed by Sara Horowitz, the president of the Freelancers Union, is a sad testimony to the way that good people can buy into some very bad ideas.  She begins innocently enough by describing a current shift in employment practices: “Freelancers, independent contractors and temp workers are on their way to making up the majority of the U.S. labor force. They number 42 million, or one-third of all workers in the nation. That figure is expected to rise to 40% — some 60 million people — by the end of the decade.” As we have seen in higher education, this move to just-in-time, part-time, flexible labor often has many disadvantages including no benefits, no job security, low wages, and unpredictable, last-minute schedules.
One would think that an organization representing this growing sector of the labor force would condemn the super-exploitation of employees, but instead we are told the following: “It's true that many have been forced into this brave new world of freelance work by external factors. But many are getting into it by choice because independent work aligns with a paradigm shift in values that is happening both at work and in the marketplace.”  In other words, the new generation of workers likes this form of super-exploited labor because it fits their lifestyles.  For instance, we are informed that, “Nearly 9 in 10 workers affiliated with Freelancers Union, a 250,000-member nonprofit, say they wouldn't return to traditional work if they had the choice. This sentiment is especially true for millennials, who will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025 — and who work and consume differently than generations before them.”  Although it is unclear who has responded to this survey and how they define traditional work, the message appears to be that the notion of a stable job with benefits and a career is now considered to be out of date and undesirable.
According to Horowitz, “among the growing ranks of independent workers, labor itself is increasingly its own reward, as is the opportunity to establish a work-life balance that was unthinkable during the Era of Big Work. Millions of freelancers are working when they want and how they want. They're building gratifying careers but also happy lives.” The notion that labor is its own reward sounds like a massive rationalization for self-exploitation, and while it is true that some people may prefer a more flexible work schedule, flexibility is often a tool for employer manipulation. 
We are told that workers want to be self-employed and don’t mind not having job security or stable wages because they prefer their freedom: “Yes, the comfort of a regular paycheck is gone, but it's replaced by other, arguably greater comforts: a flexible schedule, the sense of ownership and pride that comes with being one's own boss, the ability to prioritize health and wellness in ways that are incompatible with traditional employment structures.”  As one French philosopher once said, freedom has often resulted in the freedom to starve. 
The fact that a labor organizer is promoting this “new economy ideology” is indicative of the total dominance of the neoliberal economic regime:  as corporations increase their record breaking profits and the real wages of the average worker goes down, the working poor are told to embrace their new freedom.  Moreover, it turns out that they won’t mind having no money because they really don’t like buying things: “In reality, millennials tend to value experiences more than things. Their consumption habits are driven less by what kind of job they have and more by their pursuit of ever-evolving technology, brands that align with their ideals and sustainable and social purpose purchasing.”  What Horowitz does not say that is that due to their high-level of student debt and low-wage jobs in the micro-economy, young people cannot afford to buy even the basic necessities. 

Of course, Horowitz would likely dismiss these criticisms as the result of the inability to embrace the inevitable drive of history and technology: “From what we buy to how we work — and why we do either — the American economy is undergoing a change every bit as epic as the shift a century ago from an agrarian society to an industrial one. When workers left the farm for the factory, there were, undoubtedly, plenty who mourned the loss of the old way of life, while others eagerly looked to the next era with vision and enthusiasm. The same is true today.” Although we should not deny that our labor system is changing, it is still important for us to protect the good aspects of the old economy.  What we don’t need is the blind enthusiasm that pushes Horowitz to proclaim the following:  “The Era of Big Work is indeed over, and good riddance. Welcome to the Era of Meaningful Independence.”  Really?  From a labor organizer?


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