What’s to Blame for the Rise of the Gig Economy?

A different way of looking at the nature of temporary work.

An Uber SUV waits for a client in Manhattan.
We can’t blame Uber for everything.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

In his new book Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, Louis Hyman looks at the reasons behind the temporary nature of so much of the American economy. Eschewing the thesis that companies like Uber are primarily responsible for people working jobs without proper benefits and protections, Hyman examines the changes in American corporate life after the 1950s and 1960s, and why the much-mythologized postwar years were less rosy than we think. At the same time, he explains that the postwar era did offer protections for workers that have lately become much sparser and posits that the challenge going forward is to ensure that Americans keep the flexibility they now seem to want, while simultaneously not being exploited by the companies they work for.

Is this even possible? I recently spoke by phone with Hyman, who is an associate professor of history at the ILR School at Cornell University, to ask. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the racially blinkered view of 1950s America, the real reason workers find themselves with so little power today, and why technological advances are neither the panacea nor the root cause of what ails our economy.

Isaac Chotiner: Why did you want to write a book on this subject?

Louis Hyman: I was drawn to this topic both because I had seen the rising insecurity of work in America and I was struck by the fact that we constantly talk about normal work. I started this project in about 2011, and even after the financial crisis, there was this talk about going back to a normal economy, and I was like, What are we talking about here? The postwar period was only 25 years long. We’ve lived in this state of stagnation, wage stagnation, rising inequality, for almost 50 years now, and I wanted to write the history, not of the decline of that older, good job, but the rise of the kinds of work that replaced it.

What do you think the conventional wisdom is, and where do you think it’s correct or incorrect, about how we got into the situation you just laid out?

It’s very easy, when you talk with people, to say, “Oh, this is about artificial intelligence. Work is insecure because of artificial intelligence and it’s about apps and smartphones and Uber.” And if you talk to economists, at least if you did in 2011, they would say things like, “Oh, it’s all about transaction costs,” which is the idea that the internet makes it easy for work to become more insecure, that people have become less attached to their jobs, just through their employers. And it just struck me as odd because, at least in my experience as a historian, technology doesn’t really change things as often as it solves for existing kinds of social relationships.

If I say, “industrial revolution,” you think steam engines and railroads and coal. Well, all those kinds of inventions are solving for the rearrangement of social relationships, people coming from the farm into the earliest factories. And, once they were there, they didn’t use any different technology. It was just a rearrangement of human work. With temp labor, I was thinking about how this is not really about technology, or rather, what are the ways in which technology is important for the story and in what ways is this really about the changing organization of work, and especially the changing nature of the corporation?

What about the changing nature of the corporation?

We think of the corporation as always being profit maximizing, and always about the stockholders. But in the postwar period, you have a very different kind of corporation. It’s focused, through the ’40s and ’50s, on long-term stability. It’s focused on long-term profits. And it worked so well, in fact, that through the 1960s, American capitalism just makes tons of money, but it begins to mutate. A lot of that money, instead of being spent on R&D or being given to the workers, because of anti-monopoly laws, because of new kinds of financial techniques like the leveraged buyout, you start to have companies begin to gobble up other companies and you have the first conglomerates. And these conglomerates were the darlings of Wall Street. Everybody was excited about them. They were the future and then, in 1969, they all fall apart. It turns out that, instead of bigger was better, instead of bigger making for more efficient firms, in fact, they just had gotten bigger but hadn’t made any more money.

And so there’s this hangover in the ’70 and ’80s as people have to rethink how the corporation should be sized and how it should be operated, and they questioned everything. The most important people in my book for this are business gurus like Alvin Toffler, but also management consultants like the people of Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company.

But were there specific things that you can point to where you think our economy could be different today, or was it a confluence of forces?

I think it’s not about one particular policy or law or something like that, it’s really much more about a shift in how we understood what the purpose of the economy was. I think there was a sense, coming out of the Great Depression, that the purpose of the economy was to create the good life for everybody. And, coming out of the 1970s, it was to just maximize shareholder value and that this is all you could do.

There’s an important caveat that runs through the book. When I say, “The good life,” sorry, it’s not actually for everybody, it’s for American white men. This question of exclusion is central to how that stability in the postwar is organized, so that the people left out of that, women, people of color, non-Americans, especially economic migrants, these people are actually living in an insecure, temporary economy in the postwar in a way that we’re all living in now, and it’s upon them that the rehearsal for today’s world occurred. And so part of the book is about why that world of work displaced the secure world of work for white men. And, Isaac, if I’m going on too long, please tell me.

Don’t worry. I would interrupt you if you were.

OK. I know how professors are.

This concept of flexibility—that some of these jobs allow people to be entrepreneurial or take new risks—how do you weigh a factor like that, and how much does it make up for some of the negative trends you are writing about?

I think that flexibility is, of course, something that everybody wants in their life. Everybody wants to have choice over when they work. But it’s not just about when they work; it’s for how much. It’s frustrating to me how often, when you see these debates, especially over Uber, where people say, “Well, if it wasn’t for Uber” or that these are terrible jobs. “They’re flexible in some sense, but look how little they’re making.” Well, the alternative is not a good paying union job in a factory or office or a good paying white-collar office job. The alternative is slinging lattes at Starbucks, where you may or may not get the shift that you need, you may or may not get the hours you need every week. And so I think, in the book, I write that Uber is the waste product of the service economy, and I think that this is the real alternative for working people. And the problem is not the flexibility of big labor, the problem is how the service economy has failed working Americans.

I do think that there is this excitement about flexibility. When I started this book, it was going to be about the rise of terrible jobs. Just really focused on the insecurity. And, by the time I finished it, after talking with so many people who work these jobs and really reading the stories of these people, I was really touched, I was really swayed by this possibility, and it really made the postwar look very different to me. In the postwar, even if you had those good jobs, you traded autonomy for security, and I feel like there’s a very core American value about independence and autonomy going back to Jefferson. And I think that I’d love to figure out a way that we can make this independent work possible and sustainable for the millions of people who are a part of it and want that kind of flexibility so that work doesn’t define every hour of their life.

And, even for the jobs we’re all nostalgic for in the postwar, those jobs were repetitive and monotonous and soul-breaking and I think that, as we are in this crisis of thinking about what is the future of work, we have to keep track of how we can remake work using technology to make our jobs more humane.

And I do think that technology plays an important role in this, that technology can … I don’t think it’s driving these changes. I think it’s solving for problems. The Uber app is possible not because of technology, but because there are people who are so desperate for work to fill out their shifts, to fill out the rest of their hours in their week, they’re willing to do this and it’s better than the alternative. As we think about technology, we should be trying to figure out ways to liberate us from tedium and toil and get better paid, just like we did in some invention in the past, like the mechanical thresher or something like that. That is the reason we aren’t all in the fields every fall bringing in the harvest. To me, this is the optimistic part of the story.

Many people have all this flexibility now, as you say, but something fundamentally seems to have gone amiss in the society, which is being expressed politically, and not just here, but around the western world. I’m not saying the fact that people are working temp jobs is the reason that we have Donald Trump or Brexit or whatever else. But if does seem to me that there’s a fundamental unhappiness with things right now and I do wonder how the changing nature of work plays into that.

Yeah. There’s also the rise of inequality, which is part of the story, but it’s also a story of financialization, it’s a story of globalization. I think that the big crisis we’re confronting is: Can you have a true multiracial, multiethnic democracy? That postwar world was based on racial and gender exclusion. And part of what we’ve been contesting in this country since the 1960s is a more inclusive kind of capitalism and more inclusive kinds of democracy. And I think Europe is facing this, I think we’re facing this, and we have to posit some kind of inclusive story that makes us all part of it.

It’s not just about a law to fix flexible labor. It’s a change in cultural mindset that everybody counts who lives here.

Do you think that if we’re going to solve these problems of workers being in temp jobs without benefits, the solution is to change society so there are fewer jobs like this, somehow, or is it that we need to create a society with more of a social safety net because these jobs are inevitable and society needs to protect them?

I think we have to start with the reality. If you look at the work of the economist Alan Krueger, he found that 94 percent of the net new jobs between 2005 and 2015 were in these alternative work arrangements, [what] I call temp jobs in the book. And I think that this is the growth area of the economy and there are those who say it’s growing because you are not paying benefits, people are being underpaid, and the only reason it’s growing is because it’s an evasion of all the labor law that we have, the employment law. And there’s those that say, “Well, no, actually this is a place where people feel more free, they feel more autonomous. They’re doing what they want. They want that flexibility.” And the data, right now, is very muddled. The answer is yes and yes.

I think the best thing we can do is make sure that it’s not an evasion of labor law, so that we create systems like portable benefits, like EEOC, they make sure we have anti-discrimination laws as it applies to the gig economy in various ways and making sure that everybody who is in the economy counts, whether they’re working for one employer or contractors.