Not too long ago, most American workers could expect to have a good, stable job, with benefits, throughout their careers. In his new book, The End of Loyalty, author Rick Wartzman takes a closer look at that golden age and explores what’s happened since that social contract started to fray.
We talked to him about what’s changed, what hasn’t—and what’s next for American workers.
One of the most commonly cited indications of the end of loyalty is job tenure: the average worker switches jobs every four or so years. But according to your book, people switched jobs quite a bit during the so-called golden age of employment in the 1950s and 60s.
You hear the phrase “lifetime employment” being kicked about when people are discussing what the job market was like in the postwar era. But it’s a bit of a myth. In fact, the research shows that people switched jobs quite a bit back then—with men often holding positions at 10 or 12 different employers during their lives. Particularly early in their professional careers, they moved around, looking for the best opportunity, and that fluidity has always been a very positive feature of the U.S. labor market.
Yet there’s also no doubt that, in that earlier era, many people would get to a point where they would settle in and stay at one place, often for decades at a time. So that’s really what the phrase “lifetime employment” meant in practice, and it’s a much less familiar scenario today.
The other difference is that in the past, people tended to move because they wanted to, often in pursuit of a better job. Many people now are switching jobs because they have to—because they’ve been downsized. The folks who worked in middle management used to be especially protected; once they landed a job at a big corporation, they really did have lifetime employment if they wanted it. There’s nothing like that now.
At the high end of the market, at least, many people do still move in search of better opportunities. The freelance consultants and executives we work with, for instance, say they’ve gone independent because it’s better for them—they can make more money, or choose to work only on projects that interest them, or have more control over the course of their lives. But that’s not true for everyone in the gig economy, is it?
At the high end of the labor market, there’s long been a hunger to move and find the best opportunity. In some ways, Business Talent Group puts a new twist on a phenomenon that has always existed, by introducing the element of being an independent worker.
Obviously, it’s great when people have the knowledge and skills to be at the high end of the professional talent market. There’s also a low end of gig and temp workers who don’t have the skills or formal education to be able to be in demand the way your talent is. And they face a different reality with low pay, lousy or even nonexistent benefits, and working conditions that are often substandard.
The history of temp work, which is a sort of structural precursor to some of the models of work made possible by the gig economy, has a surprisingly long history.
The modern temp industry was born when large numbers of women began entering the workforce in the 1960s. Women were being educated in increasingly large numbers, and these temp jobs were a way to give them the ability to work and be home when the kids got back from school, since there was still great social pressure for the latter.
And then, over time, temp work evolved into a way for employers simply to cut costs, and suddenly men were swept in.
In your book, you write about how the social contract needs to evolve to support these changes in the labor market. What changes would you like to see at the corporate and governmental levels?
I think the government has a huge role to play, and one of the most important things it can do is to create portable benefits and good standards for independent workers. The independent market is the fastest growing part of the labor force, and we need protections at both the high and low end.
More generally, mine is probably a fairly typical liberal/progressive list of policies the government should be enacting: expansion of the earned income tax credit, creation of a living wage that’s indexed to inflation… And when it comes to healthcare, I would love to see us move in a single-payer direction, whatever flavor that may come in. It’s really a quirk of history that most people’s medical coverage is tied to their place of employment.
But the bigger shift has to come from businesses. If you look at the way CEOs talked in the postwar era, it was about balancing the interests of all of their constituents—shareholders, to be sure, but also workers and customers and the communities they operated in, and even the government in terms of paying their fair share of taxes. Corporate America has since adopted a very different mindset, where it’s all about “maximizing shareholder value.” And once you do that, there is no question that workers are going to not do as well. It’s just math; the pie gets carved up differently. But how the pie is ultimately carved up is a choice—an expression of our norms and values—and I think we need to push back against investors always getting more and labor getting less.
Leah Hoffmann is BTG's Marketing & Content Strategist. A former journalist, Leah worked for Forbes.com and The Economist before joining BTG. She is passionate about clear thinking, sharp writing, and strong points of view.