Following the disruption to the modern workplace that occurred as a result of the coronavirus, it is more clear than ever before that the traditional concept of jobs no longer exists. Ideas about work that previous generations passed down simply do not apply anymore: people are no longer working at one place until retirement, work hours are not limited from nine to five, and the labor market is now a gig economy. Most people inherently recognize this and are adjusting accordingly.
Historically, the forty hour workweek became the default in 1938 after the Fair Labor Standards Act ended six to seven day weeks for many workers. Around the same time, benefits like health care, social security, and a living wage became attached to jobs as well. The jobs that adhered to these standards and offered such benefits, typically belonged to blue collar workers like those in the manufacturing industry.
The slow disappearance of these jobs therefore meant the eventual disappearance of these traditional job expectations. Starting with the idea of a forty hour workweek, there is a combination today of overwork by one group of workers and underwork by another. This divide became prominent as the proportion of blue collar workers declined, consistent with the increasing services-focus of developed economies.
On one end of the spectrum, higher paid workers (who can be identified most easily as white collar or knowledge workers) consistently work more than forty hours per week. Both weakened labor laws and technology that increased employees’ availability led to longer work hours. In contrast, low wage and hourly workers often struggle to obtain enough hours of work to earn a living wage. Their schedules also change frequently with little to no notice, forcing them to constantly be available at a moment’s notice if they want to be able to pay their bills. A 2019 survey found that one third of retail and food service workers are part-time workers involuntarily and want more hours than their employers give.
This need for more, encouraged blue collar workers to search for “side hustles” or alternative ways of earning money, typically by using technology. The gig economy is a result of that. Companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, or DoorDash create short term contract work that deviates from traditional forms of labor. A Pew Research survey conducted in 2021 found that 16% of Americans have ever earned money via an online gig platform. For roughly six in ten of those who are current or recent gig workers, the money earned this way was described as either “essential” (23%) or “important” (35%) for meeting their basic needs.
The debate continues over whether this shift towards a gig economy is a positive or negative development. Some praise it as an opportunity to address the issue of longer workweeks by allowing people to set their own hours, thus encouraging flexibility and entrepreneurship. Others criticize this transition because of what is lost in the transition to gig economy jobs – namely benefits and job security. However, the pandemic induced labor shortages have caused change at gig economy companies. For example, Doordash recently decided to hire workers full time in order to provide benefits to employees. People needed a greater incentive to return to work post-pandemic, and the company recognized its dependence on labor. This dependence had gone unnoticed because they mistook labor availability to be unlimited.
The rise of the gig economy in turn increased the rate of job turnover. It is increasingly rare today for the first job a person has, or even the second, to be their last. While the post-war generation worked a single job for their entire career, the boomers worked in more than one job. The average number of jobs in a lifetime is now 12.4 according to a 2021 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 12.4 – this means that the average person will change jobs more than 12 times during their career. This statistic, and the change it implies, is nothing if not dramatic.
It’s easy to be disheartened by how drastically work and everything that comes with it has changed. Work will only continue to change though, and it is currently beginning to favor the average employee. Again, many workers quit their jobs in The Great Resignation following the pandemic. This phenomena forced employers to reevaluate the value of employees and their fulfillment and retention to combat the labor shortage. The shortage of employees has, in turn, allowed workers to raise and be heard on their longstanding concerns regarding burnout, poor compensation, and work life balance.
The full extent of change to the workplace remains to be seen. That is not to mention what changes will endure versus changes that might be more fleeting. All that is certain is that the workplace is much different than what it once was.
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