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Is job insecurity a myth?


At the New Yorker website, Mark Gimein makes a startling and contrarian claim about the US economy: job security is actually greater now than it was ten or twenty years ago. This flies in the face of the received wisdom—articulated by the likes of Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, and everyone in between—that the rise of the “gig economy” has introduced widespread insecurity into the job market. Gimein’s evidence for his claim is somewhat thin: he cites data showing that the average worker today stays at a job longer than they did ten years ago. But as he himself concedes, the reason for this may be that workers are clinging desperately to their jobs—no matter how low-paying or unfulfilling they are—because they cannot find better ones. Still, while Gimein may not convince everyone that the labor market is thriving today, he does usefully undermine nostalgia for the job market of the past, which we too easily assume was universally more secure and humane than our job market. Rather, Gimein’s data demonstrates that in the capitalist job market, then as now, insecurity is the order of the day:

It’s commonplace to say that the sepia-toned America of those better days never really existed. Still, it bears saying: it never existed. Clinton gives voice to a nostalgia that misrepresents how eager the young people of the past were to start “stable” jobs.

Moreover, our collective nostalgia misrepresents historical job security so completely that it gets it close to backward. We imagine a past where everyone had thirty-year careers (or, less pretentiously, jobs), tapering off into a work twilight and then retirement. This memory is surprisingly at odds with the data: the typical worker now stays at a job six months longer than the average worker did a decade ago. Taking an even longer-term view, the typical worker has stayed at the same job for more than four and a half years, versus just three and a half years in 1983.

Whether that increase in stability is wholly positive is arguable. In roaring economies, workers switch jobs more often, looking for higher pay or better bosses. The length of time spent at one job goes up in times of economic stress (such as the mid-aughts), when workers hang on for dear life. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that younger workers switch jobs less often than in the past. For women, also, the length of time at the average job has gone up markedly. (It’s now almost the same as for men.) To the extent that there was security in the past, it didn’t apply to women.

Image via the New Yorker.